Opening Nights: Chamber Cymbeline

Streamlining a problematic play.

There's something for every devotee of the Bard in Chamber Cymbeline, though in this seldom-performed late-career effort, the mighty pen at Stratford-Upon-Avon appears to be running dry. Shakespeare fans will be quick to recognize his stock characters, morality tropes, and familiar plot devices, but a general fatigue permeates the text, as though the world's greatest playwright is simply going through the motions. This "chamber" version, neatly attenuated by director Henry Woronicz for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, reduces the show to a tidy two and a half hours with intermission. Still, it's much ado about not so much. Had Shakespeare elected to lampoon his ludicrous plot by turning Cymbeline into an outright comedy, the results might have been uproarious. Here's why: Cymbeline (Larry Paulsen) is a vain and stubborn king whose equally headstrong daughter, Imogen (Jennifer Lee Taylor), secretly marries the impoverished but noble Posthumus rather than her stepmother's lunkhead son Cloten (both played by Connor Toms). Dad banishes Posthumus and confines his daughter to quarters in hopes she'll come to her senses and marry befitting her rank. Over in Italy, war is brewing with England; Iachimo (Bradford Farwell) overhears Posthumus singing Imogen's praises and vows, for reasons unknown, to drop whatever he's doing to visit England and woo her in order to destroy her reputation and Posthumus' faith in her virtue. There's also a royal son kidnapped in childhood and raised by a woodsman, servants armed with sleeping potions, a conniving queen who plots against her husband, mistaken identities, and the standard round-robin confession at the dénouement when intrigues unravel and each character explains how the whole mess came to be. Seattle Shakes earns its kudos for daring to go where most would fear to tread and actually making sense of this muddle. There isn't a weak link in the ensemble. Toms is particularly enjoyable in his dual roles, as is Taylor's turn as his princess. The production work, from lights and costumes to a moody sound design, is well-conceived and airtight in execution. In its long form, Cymbeline is not a great play, as even experts agree. (Scholars also debate whether Shakespeare actually wrote the play, or only portions of it.) But if you're a completist, this is the one Cymbeline you should see.

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