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Forgiveness After All: A Review of CYMBELINE at Marin Shakespeare

July 4, 2015 § Leave a Comment

Shakespeare’s brilliant but rarely-produced gem, Cymbeline, is receiving a wonderful new staging by the Marin Shakespeare Company (with a terrific new musical score by Billie Cox) that makes you wonder why this play is so rarely performed.

Tales of Reunion and Redemption

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s four late tragicomedies, collectively known as the Romances. (The others are The Tempest, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale.) Their essential quality is the way in which they seem to shift genre as they progress from darkest tragedy to hard-won, but happy, endings.

Cast of Cymbeline

The full cast on Jackson Currier’s evocative set for the revelatory final scene. All photos by Lori A Cheung

The titular character of Cymbeline is the king of Britain during the time of Caesar Augustus, but he is a relatively minor character in the play. The protagonist is his daughter, Imogen, a role with such range and variety that it is known as the female Hamlet.

Enough Plot for Ten Plays

The plot is enormously convoluted, even by Shakespearean standards, but essentially traces her fortunes after she marries (over her father’s, and especially her wicked step-mother’s, objections) her poor-but-valorous childhood sweetheart, Posthumus, in preference to her cloddish step-brother, Cloten. For ruining Cloten’s path to the kingship, Posthumus is banished, makes his way to Rome, and in a self-pitying drunken episode is persuaded to wager on his wife’s fidelity. Through the trickery of a Machiavellian villain named Iachimo, he is convinced that she is unfaithful to him, so he puts a hit out on her.

Stella Heath as Imogen, the role called the "female Hamlet."

Stella Heath as Imogen, the role called the “female Hamlet.”

Meanwhile, she secretly travels to Wales, where she believes she will be reunited with Posthumus. Once informed by a sympathetic servant that she has been lured there to be murdered, she goes into male disguise and falls into company with a long-banished courtier (now gone Celticly native) and the two young men he is raising as his sons. After additional plot twists and turns, she awakens from a Juliet-like artificial coma to discover a headless corpse next to her dressed in her husband’s clothes, at which point she has a famous freak-out scene. Against the background of a battle between the native Britains and the occupying Roman Legions (who have conscripted both Posthumus and Iachimo into their service) the circumstances are aligned for all to work out, but no character has access to all the facts.

The play ends with a wildly improbable, and therefore wondrous, final scene consisting of some thirty+ revelations, as individual characters slowly realize they know a crucial piece of information and steadily trump each other with escalating plot twists that take in deathbed repentences, mistaken identities, long-lost children, and finally (beautifully! magnificently!) forgiveness and reunion.

Marin’s version is streamlined, shortening one of Shakespeare’s longest plays into a comfortable two-and-a-half hour playing time. Some presentational moments of paraphrase of plot points apparently thought too obscure were unnecessarily colloquial, coming off as condescending instead of comic, but they did get us moved on to the meat of the show.

Overlooked Masterpiece

Cymbeline is shamefully neglected and under-produced, historically because plays with female protagonists were thought, incorrectly, to lack drawing power – ironically the very same debate currently raging over Hollywood blockbusters. At the moment that tide was finally beginning to turn, the sheer demands of size and scale of this enormous play began to make it undesirable in the increasingly impoverished circumstances of the American theatre. Marin Shakespeare, the little-company-that-could, is far and away the most programmatically adventurous in the Bay Area and seems completely undaunted by either threat.

As Imogen, Stella Heath brings the range and the stamina the part demands, along with an enormously sympathetic appeal. She is the glue that holds this production together, and is a great standard bearer for Marin in what is turning out to be “the summer of women” at Bay Area festivals. Thomas Gorrebeeck pulls off the theatrical tour-de-force of playing both the hero, Posthumus, and the antagonist, Cloten. His Posthumus is suitably hunky and believably gullible, diametrically contrasting with his rather unnuanced portrayal of the nuance-free dolt, Cloten – but scores the most memorable moment in the production when (in an incongruously inserted rock song) he proves he has the moves like Jagger.


Thomas Gorrebeeck pulling off his double roles as Posthumus (above) and Cloten (below).

CopyrightLoriACheung_Cymbeline_Cloten_8713 Thomas Gorrebeeck pulling off his double roles as Posthumus (above) and Cloten (below).

The cast has several other standouts, including Davern Wright as the smarmy, and then astonishingly guilt stricken, Iachimo; Rod Gnapp in the wildly difficult role of the courtier-turned-mountain man Belarius; and the amazing local favorite Debi Durst, who may have the most expressive face in the Bay Area, and without whose astonished range of reactions in the final scene we might have been totally lost.

Billie Cox has added a set of original songs, using Shakespearean lyrics, with a generally pleasing Celtic quality that seem both authentic and efficient. (A few less impressive modern digressions were not to my taste – the most egregious of which was the insertion of “That’s Amore,” with both original lyrics and then a reprise with a set of juvenile alternative lyrics that fell flat, but those moments passed quickly while the impact of some lovely ballads and love songs lingered.) Jackson Currier’s set is the best that this generally spectacle-eschewing company has utilized for years, and Tammy Berlin’s costumes are more than serviceable.

Transcendence After All

Robert Currier’s direction was generally sound and inventive. The opening expositionary moment of the show, usually a dull recitation of facts, featured a stroke of genius: the staging included a bed rolling across the stage as its inhabitants (Imogen and Posthumus) were introduced. He also moved huge crowds about the stage, not just efficiently, but in ways that pictured the complex story clearly.

Davern Wright as the Machiavellian Iachimo after having smuggled himself in Imogen's bedroom in a trunk.

Davern Wright as the Machiavellian Iachimo after having smuggled himself in Imogen’s bedroom in a trunk.

His control of tone was shakier, as he seemed particularly concerned not to let the early parts of the show become too serious although their tragic threat is exactly what makes the final dodging of death and destruction work. As a result, many of the antagonists seemed comic stereotypes instead of credible obstacles. The real loss of the evening is that the combat, staged by Richard Pallaziol, seemed under-rehearsed and amateurish compared with the rest of the production.

However, whatever quibbles I have with the progress of the show cannot diminish the overall accomplishment, especially the transcendent final scene. With the still-stinging pain of Charleston on our minds, one could not help but think of the powerful moment of forgiveness offered by those grieving families when Posthumus – faced with similar villainy – uttered the beautiful line, “Kneel not to me./The power I have on you is to spare you,/The malice toward you to forgive you. Live,/ and deal with others better.”


July 3 – 26

Marin Shakespeare Company

Seen July 3, 2015

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