Cymbeline has one of the most complex plots in all of Shakespeare. The miraculous thing about Lamos' production is that we can actually follow what's going on.
Into The Light
Clarifying the murkiest Shakespeare play of them all.
by Cary M. Mazer
McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, through Feb. 8, (609) 683-8000.
You should be grateful that director Mark Lamos has the actors speak the dialogue in the very first scene of his staging of Shakespeare's Cymbeline at McCarter Theatre (co-produced with Lamos' Hartford Sage) v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.
One courtier explains to another what's happening in court, and as he names each figure in the controversy, that character catches the light, gestures or moves toward another character, so we know just who is being talked about.
And so we understand with complete clarity that Imogen (Felicity Jones), the princess in the court of King Cymbeline, has secretly married her childhood playfellow, the orphaned nobleman Posthumus Leonatus (Rick Holmes); that Cymbeline (Michael Lipton) has annulled the marriage and banished Posthumus; that Imogen's stepmother the Queen (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) is only pretending to help Imogen and Posthumus, but has actually instigated Cymbeline's banishment of Posthumus so that she can marry Imogen off to her own son, Cloten (Kyle Fabel); and that Cymbeline's only other children are two sons who mysteriously disappeared from their nursery 20 years before and have not been seen since.
Cymbeline has one of the most complex - one might almost say preposterous - plots in all of Shakespeare's plays. And so we should be grateful that Lamos' staging makes this complex plot so crystal clear. For the plot's very complexity is what carries the emotional weight of the play. Characters not only become separated - lost in order to be found, to borrow a phrase from The Tempest, another play from the final phase of Shakespeare's career - but their ability to know each other, and to know themselves, becomes shaken to the core.
Within a few minutes of stage time, Posthumus, in exile, is convinced by Iachimo (Eddy Saad), an Italian gentleman of dubious honesty, that Imogen is unchaste, and orders his loyal servant Pisanio (John Doman) to have her put to death. Before much more time goes by, everyone has traveled on foot to Wales, Posthumus thinks Imogen is dead, Imogen thinks Posthumus dead, nobody (except us) knows what has happened to Cloten, Cymbeline's lost sons (C.J. Wilson and Al Espinosa) turn out to be very much alive but have no idea about their real identities, Britain and Rome are at war, and all the characters are fighting one another, rescuing one another, and changing sides in the battle (along with their costumes and gender identities) every few minutes.
The miraculous thing about the play is that all of this confusion leads the characters, after their respective emotional ordeals, to a sense of inner peace and a faith in providence, and, in the longest series of sequential recognitions in all drama, to a happy ending.
And the miraculous thing about Lamos' production at McCarter is that we can actually follow what's going on. We can hear the audience gasp when the poison-disguised-as-medicine-but-really-a-sleeping-potion falls into the hands of precisely the wrong character, and we can laugh at the coincidences of the plot and suffer with the characters, who have no choice but to endure their trials until their lives, and the play, gets straightened out.
Many of the characterizations may be two-dimensional (in the cases of Cymbeline and the Queen, it may be the fault of the writing; in the cases of Iachimo and Cloten, it's more likely the fault of the acting). But when Imogen and Posthumus go through their individual emotional ordeals - when Posthumus, betrayed, wishes to tear the "woman's part" out of his identity; when Imogen, learning that her beloved husband wishes her dead, tries to run on Pisanio's sword; when Imogen awakens next to a flower-strewn decapitated corpse dressed in her husband's clothing (don't ask); and when Posthumus, in despair, plunges into the battle in a desperate attempt to be killed - the acting of Felicity Jones and Rick Holmes is right on target, and our emotional connection to these characters is complete.
We, like the characters, wander through the glassy surfaces of a confusing world, periodically illuminated by light reflected off of the gold surfaces of the confused constellation of stars, moons and comets that hangs above the stage (the designs are by Paul Steinberg, Susan Hilferty and Pat Collins). And when, just before the intermission, the back wall of the set opens up and bathes the stage in a bright yellow light as Imogen goes off to meet her destiny in Wales, we, too, are thrown into a world of anticipation, confusion, adventure and wonderment.