nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
October 11, 2008
Folding Chair Classical Theatre has taken up the challenge of putting on Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's lesser-known, more mediocre plays. Although the company is clearly enthusiastic about performing Shakespeare, the characters feel more like caricatures, and it does not seem like there is anything really at stake in the play.
A soldier named Posthumus goes off to war, leaving his bride Imogen at home in the court of her father, King Cymbeline. While away, Posthumus is tricked by a fabricated story from Iachimo into believing his wife has been unfaithful. Posthumus sends his servant Pisanio to have Imogen killed. Pisanio does not follow through, but rather helps Imogen to escape disguised as a man. Jealousy and mistrust have severed a relationship, but eventually the couple is reunited after, and as a result of, a war between Britain and Rome.
Given this plot, I could not tell you why Cymbeline was given its title. The King, Cymbeline, is certainly not the focal point of the play. Is Shakespeare suggesting the irrelevance of the monarch to the lives of everyday people? The King ostensibly represents the people, but in fact is disconnected from them, like the title of the play supposedly represents its content, but in fact does not. That is the best guess I have. This certainly was not a matter addressed by the production.
The company promises to perform with "few sets, costumes, or lighting cues. The company's goal is to tell stories simply and clearly, using only the actor, the text, and a few simple props." It is true that light cues are minimal—there is a solid wash over the playing space for the three-hour duration of the production; and it is true that they use a number of small benches as the only set pieces. Also, arguably, they have little costuming, since everyone's base outfit seems to be regular street clothing—but then they add little bits such as a tiara, sash, or leather jacket, to signify switching between characters. I did not understand this. If the company has made the brave choice to have no costumes, and to signify character through their skillful acting rather than unnecessary bodily decoration, then I find that admirable. Using small bits of costume to signify character are of course justifiable as well. But why are they wearing street clothes?
The company begins the show as the audience is entering, hanging around on stage, sitting on the benches, and chatting with each other. Their demeanor is clearly performative due to awareness of the audience watching them. Then they just start the play. Typically this indicates a play-within-a-play structure, or a Brechtian awareness of performance, acknowledging the actor's presence on stage playing the character. But there is no follow-through or justification for this opening later in the production. I certainly was aware of them as performers throughout the production if that was their objective. But isn't that precisely the type of "concept" the company is purportedly avoiding with their style? It seems incongruous to me.
Comedies are often pushed to extremes and entertaining as a result of dedication to ridiculousness. Here, there are some "extremes," such as Cloten (played by Josh Thelin), the step-brother of Imogen, roaring at the audience upon entering and later stripping down to his underwear to unabashedly show off his musculature. But, an extreme in of itself is not funny. The actors have a number of comedic moments, but I did not laugh because they were never made "real." Cloten waved his sword around and yelled, and later curled in ball on the ground crying, but since it lacked believability, I did not find it funny. There was not a change that took place. Nothing was truly at stake. Shakespeare's comedies are often enjoyable because the characters embarrass themselves. Without a strong connection to character present, then there is no comedy. Again, to be fair, there is no character who really develops in Cymbeline, as far as I could tell. Karen Ogle seems to play the Queen like a tomboy, and in no way indicates her scheming revealed later in the play. Anytime a character used an accent it sounded just plain silly.
If the goal of this company is to emphasize plot and character by very sparingly including components of spectacle, then that is a fine mission to have. But, in this production there was little truly at stake in the characters and no significance given to the plot. I know there was something about how jealousy leads to ruin and a war that popped out of nowhere might have had a statement about how to treat one's enemies hidden somewhere in this play. Also, the irrelevance of the title may have led to something. I am definitely a Shakespeare fan, but I would be hard-pressed to call Cymbeline one of his masterpieces, and sadly Folding Chair is unable to excavate much from it.