DUALITY IN A NOISE WITHIN’S CYMBELINE
Are women faithful to the men they love? Or are they so weak-willed and inconstant as to be easily seduced by another? While many writers and dramatists have explored these questions over the centuries, Shakespeare addresses them as just one important strand in the complicated plot of his late play Cymbeline. Another well-worn subplot of Cymbeline is that of children separated at birth whose identities are revealed during the climactic scene. Shakespeare had previously crafted an entire play around such a plot in his Comedy of Errors. As an historical fiction, Cymbeline shares with plays like King Lear a loose grounding in British myth and legend. Yet, woven into that historical fiction are elements of Roman history, such as are used in Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus. All of these shared elements and plots do not add up to a fresh and original play, but they do render Cymbeline a kind of summation or epitome of Shakespeare’s dramatic art.
The title character, Cymbeline, is the king of Britain. He does not rule independently and absolutely, but is client king to the Romans, who, under Julius Caesar, conquered the island not many decades previously. When Caius Lucius arrives from Rome to collect tribute from Cymbeline, he is rebuffed and declares war on Cymbeline. Such is the historical background of the play, whose principal plot line concerns Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter from an earlier marriage. Now remarried, Cymbeline wants Imogen to marry his stepson, Cloten, the Queen’s son from an earlier marriage. Instead, she has plighted her troth to Posthumus, an orphan raised at court. While exiled in Rome, Posthumus’ companion Iachimo questions Imogen’s virtue. Posthumus agrees to a bet with Iachimo, who heads to Britain and tries unsuccessfully to seduce her. This subplot results in Imogen leaving court, disguising herself as a boy, meeting her long-lost brothers Guiderius and Arviragus and, finally, reconciling with Cymbeline and Posthumus. This somewhat improbable chain of events thus leads to a happy resolution and ending.
A Noise Within’s current production of Cymbeline brings this peculiar Shakespearean gem vividly to life with creative casting, colorful costumes and a few powerful performances. Under Bart DeLorenzo’s deft direction, Cymbeline gains new layers of meaning that are only hinted at in Shakespeare’s text. Above all, it becomes a story of opposites, especially that of good and evil, which DeLorenzo ingeniously accomplishes by casting each actor in two quite different roles. These paired roles work very successfully in the case of Posthumus and Cloten, brilliantly played by Adam Hunter. Andrew Elvis Miller is nearly as good playing the sleazy Iachimo and noble Caius Lucius. A rather more awkward pairing is Francia DiMase as both the evil Queen and martial Belarius; her diminutive stature and fake beard give her a rather comic appearance. Only Helen Sadler as Imogen, since she appears in nearly every scene, does not act a second part.
Performing in quite opposite roles can easily lead each actor to exaggerate the differences and give caricatured performances. Adam Hunter comes close to doing so, especially as the spineless Cloten who goes from wheedling one minute to raging the next. He is much more restrained as Posthumus. Similarly, Andrew Elvis Miller is rather restrained, if not wooden, as Caius Lucius, but puts a phenomenal amount of energy into his portrayal of Iachimo. The result is an absolutely despicable, yet charismatic, Russell Brand-like lothario. Fortunately, the adorable Helen Sadler anchors Cymbeline with a perfectly balanced performance. She plays Imogen with such true feeling as to evoke sympathy from her audience. I, for one, really began to get emotional at the end when she discovers that Guiderius and Arviragus are her brothers and welcomes them with such evident enthusiasm. It was a heart-warming moment and an apt climax.
The stage at A Noise Within is minimally decorated for Cymbeline. Scenic designer Keith Mitchell opts for a simple set with few props other than Venetian Carnivalesque items like bead necklaces and masks strewn around the periphery and an open-mouthed statue that holds rear center stage. Costume designer Angela Balogh Calin and wig/make-up designer Monica Lisa Sabedra opt for an interesting amalgam of period designs. Posthumus, Pisanio and Imogen are presented in Regency-era costume, giving them a kind of innocent and wholesome aura reminiscent of Jane Austen’s novels. By contrast, Cymbeline, Cloten and the Queen are presented in a Restoration-era guise that more closely matches the Carnivalesque set design. They wear voluminous wigs, gaudy silks and lace ruffled shirts. While these differing costumes easily highlight the different virtues of each character in the play, it is unclear why such periods were evoked and whether any further meanings are intended.
With the current production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, A Noise Within proves that it really is California’s home for the classics. And it has done so by faithfully presenting an under-appreciated and complex play in a fresh way. A Noise Within has the resources to cast a different actor in each role, but the decision to cast dual roles is an inspired one, which has the happy effect of altering audience perceptions of the play as a whole and of each of its characters. It also provides each actor with a wonderful opportunity to display his/her talent – a challenge that is largely met by this charming cast. Cymbeline will surely delight you with its colorful characters, warm your heart with its felicitous finale and erase any potential doubt in your mind about the constancy of women.
photos by Craig Schwartz
A Noise Within in Pasadena
scheduled to end on November 18, 2012
for tickets, call 626-356-3100 or visit http://www.anoisewithin.org