07 September 2016

'Life Among the Ruins'

[In part 5 of Kirk Woodward’s series “Re-Reading Shaw,” which I posted on ROT on 2 September, he introduces a short piece called “Cymbeline Refinished” from 1937.  According to Kirk, Shaw “wrote an alternate ending [to Shakespeare’s play] that does not require unusual staging.”  Since Shaw rewrote William Shakespeare’s ending for Cymebline , I thought I might use that as an excuse to post my “archival” review of New York Shakespeare Festival’s production (directed in 1989 by JoAnne Akalaitis, Joseph Papp’s successor, as part of the NYSF’s multi-year Shakespeare Marathon).

[The following reviews were published together in the New York Native of 19 June 1989.  The Native  ran reviews in pairs, so there are two plays in the column.  (The paper gave me so many words for both plays, but I could divide them up any way I wanted.)  I saw the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater’s Cymbeline, which ran between 9 May and 25 June 1989, in May and the Circle Repertory Company’s Florida Crackers, 17 May-25 June,  in June.  Even though the Florida Crackers review is totally unrelated to Cymbeline or Shaw, I’m leaving the two co-published pieces together here because . . . well, that’s the way they appeared in print 27 years ago.]

by William Shakespeare
New York Shakespeare Festival
Public Theater/Newman Theater

The ninth production in Joe Papp’s Shakespeare Marathon, Cymbeline certainly has elements of a gothic romance: twisted plots, separated lovers, lost and stolen children, disguises, poisons and potions, and ghosts.  A plot too complex to synopsize here—the program includes a page-and-a-half précis—it befits opera or all-day Kabuki.  It seems appropriate, therefore, that JoAnne Akalaitis sets her production in the mid-nineteenth century of Dickens, Austen, and Poe.  The final scene, with the entire cast unraveling the dozen or so complications, outstrips Gilbert and Sullivan. 

The shadowy, often fog-shrouded production, on George Tsypin’s chameleon set moodily dance-lit by Pat Collins, is over three hours long, but has such verve and energy it seems only half that.  The gothic ambience is enhanced by Philip Glass’s score of romantic viola with percussive counterpoint.

Sounds of a thunderstorm establish the atmosphere about fifteen minutes before curtain.  (Perhaps it was the air-conditioning, but I actually began to feel chilly.)  Then, two gentlemen complete with umbrellas step through the curtains and fill us in on the marriage of King Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen, to impoverished Posthumus; the latter’s banishment to Italy, and the mysterious disappearance of Cymbeline’s two sons.  The curtain opens on “Celtic ruins” covered by heavy ground fog, lit sparsely from above and the sides.  Two large, square columns are center stage, the floor is covered with runic drawings and a Stonehenge-like ruin is projected on the backdrop. 

Scenes in England, Italy and Wales are quickly created by new configurations of the columns and new projections of forests, caves, walls and interiors—even a rippling stream.  The projections, black- or sepia-and-white, are unspecific, often fragmentary, and, combined with the shadowy lighting, evoke impressions rather than literal pictures.  In this way, Tsypin’s set accommodates the swiftness of Akalaitis’s direction, which moves the production without turning it into a headlong rush. 

The brooding elements, though constant, still permit Akalaitis occasional whimsy.  Twice, for instance, Cymbeline (George Bartenieff) on his throne is flown onstage from the wings, and Iachimo, gathering false evidence of Imogen’s seduction, peeks shyly down the sleeping princess’s bodice.  Broader humor is generated by Cloten, the Queen’s oafish son, played by a chubby Wendell Pierce.  His physical appearance, accentuated by an absurd page-boy mop of hair and outlandish clothes of clashing patterns and colors, belies the earnestness with which Pierce plays his lust for Imogen and his thirst for revenge on Posthumus.  The contrast, occasionally off-putting—especially when Pierce tries too hard—is often hilarious.

There is also considerable charm in the performances of Joan Cusack as Imogen, Jeffrey Nordling as Posthumus, Peter Francis James as Posthumus’ loyal servant Pisanio, Michael Cumpsty (who here resembles Robert Goulet or the late Guy Williams, TV’s Zorro) as the oily Iachimo, Frederick Neumann as the wrongly banished Belarius, and Jesse Borrego and Don Cheadle as Cymbeline’s long-lost sons Polydore and Cadwal.  These last two, it must be added, display virtuosic acrobatics in their several fights, and, as feral innocents, may be the most confused characters in the convoluted circumstances, for they fall naïvely in love with Imogen, disguised as a boy, not knowing that she is a woman, a princess and their sister.  The audience clearly appreciated Borrego’s and Cheadle’s performances, for their curtain call received the loudest applause.

Cusack is strong and stalwart, though her voice has a hoarseness that precludes much vocal variety despite the obvious emotional variety the actress commands.  Still, I found her more forceful and sympathetic here than in her last New York appearance, Circle Rep’s Brilliant Traces.  Joan MacIntosh’s Queen, a sort of Junior League Lady Macbeth crossed with a real-life version of Snow White’s queen, would be easy to caricature as a dragon lady, but MacIntosh and Akalaitis keep to a believable level of evil. 

Cumpsty’s unctuous smarminess as Iachimo, a sleaze if ever there was one, is clear without being telegraphed.  As a rake, he presses Imogen, importunes her fervently and then backs off quickly when she refuses him.  Having snuck into her bedroom while she is asleep, Cumpsty peeps down her nightgown with puerile glee, showing what a little boy this poseur really is.  Without this detail, the audience probably couldn’t forgive him, as Imogen and Posthumus do, for the near tragedy he causes.

Among the production’s remarkable moments is a choreographed battle with stylized individual combat, a slow-motion mass attack—and a leap by Borrego from a ten-foot-high ramp into a crowd of enemy soldiers.  Later, there is a literal deus ex machina as Jupiter, in the guise of boy alto Jacob White, sings an aria suspended on a giant bird. 

As steadily as it keeps its many balls in the air, Akalaitis’s Cymbeline is not without problems, however.  Whimsical as it is, the flying throne comes, literally and dramatically, out of nowhere.  And the good performances aside, it is momentarily troublesome that Cymbeline and his first queen should have a white daughter, a black son and an Hispanic son.  More difficult to accept is that Imogen, awakening from a drugged, death-like sleep, would mistake the headless corpse of Cloten, a stout black man, for her husband, a tall, slim white man.  (Cloten was wearing Posthumus’ clothes, but rather than explaining the confusion, that only raises the question how the tubby prince could fit into them.)  Also, the director includes Posthumus’ ghostly family, who appear to him in a dream shimmering like translucent holograms, in other scenes throughout the play, as if they are silently watching over the events of the story.  This presence seems unnecessary; however, like Akalaitis’s other inventions, it doesn’t ultimately harm the production. 

As the audience left, one spectator concluded that Cymbeline is the strongest entry so far in the Marathon.  I can’t necessarily go along with the exclusivity—James Lapine’s Winter’s Tale still stands out for the acting and individual character portrayals—but Akalaitis has unquestionably put together a marvelously atmospheric and theatrical spectacle.

by Wm. S. Leavengood
Circle Repertory Company

There is a public service TV commercial that shows two young men sitting around a bedroom smoking pot.  One says he doesn’t believe marijuana is dangerous; after all, they’ve smoked it since they were twelve and nothing’s happened to them.  Then the man’s mother asks if he’s even looked for a job that day.  “No, ma,” he answers, and the voice-over declares, “Marijuana can make nothing happen to you, too.”  That, in a thirty-second spot, is what Wm. S. Leavengood seems to be saying over two hours in Florida Crackers

In John Bishop’s hyperrealistic production, in which real eggs are cooked, real sand is spread over the Circle rep’s stage and aisles and real barbells are bench-pressed, brothers Joe (John C. McGinley), Grant (Michael Piontek) and Russell (Scott Rymer) essentially dream their lives—and inheritance—away as they smoke, snort, deal, and deliver pot and coke around St. Petersburg, Florida.  Too enervated to do anything else, they know only one way to make money for their various pipe dreams.  It’s an unpoetic, brutish Iceman Cometh à la 1979.

The boys’ favorite song is the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit” (1975) whose key line seems to be “I’ve always been a dreamer.”  Seven scenes spread over two acts reveal the lassitude of the brothers and their friends and lovers until they are finally galvanized by Grant’s arrest for transporting pot.  As to why these former preppies don’t break out of their self-destructive rut, the play’s only explanation is the description of fish caught in the deadly red tide: even though the algae will inevitably poison or suffocate the fish, they don’t swim away because they don’t know any better.

A talented cast, a detailed set (by John Lee Beatty), and appropriate but uninspired direction, however, can’t make these people interesting or worthy of sympathy.  Their lives weren’t ruined by some outside force against which we can root for them to struggle; they are victims of their own selfishness and inertia.  They get what they deserve.

[In my commentary on Kirk Woodward’s book The Art of Writing Reviews (Merry Press/Lulu, 2009), I related an anecdote that pertains to my New York Native review of Cymbeline, the one republished here.  In Part 3 of “The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward” (11 November 2009), I wrote that after a contretemps I had in print with John Simon, New York magazine’s drama reviewer, over The Winter’s Tale, an earlier entry in the NYSF marathon, my Cymbeline notice was published.

On 19 June, however, my review of another NYSF production, Cymbeline (part of NYSF’s then-ongoing marathon of all Shakespeare’s plays over about a decade), came out in the Native and unbeknownst to me, the editors had put a banner headline on the front page of the edition saying, “Hey, John Simon: We Loved Cymbeline.”  Simon had obviously panned Cymbeline (12 June)--it was a controversial production under the direction of JoAnne Akalaitis--but the banner was clearly more directed at my difference of opinion with Simon over Winter’s Tale.

[In a later section of my comments, I quoted Kirk’s statement that “reviewers often are not responsible for headlines” and other accompaniments to their columns.  Though most of my reviews did appear under headlines of my own devising, I not only had no hand in writing that banner about Cymbeline that baited John Simon, but I didn’t even know about it until the issue came out.  Since my deadline was often 10 days before the issue date, I’d written my copy before Simon’s negative review of Cymbeline hit the stands.  (I no longer subscribed to New York and didn’t seek out Simon’s reviews anyway; I wouldn’t have known about his response to the play until someone told me about it.)]

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