By William Shakespeare.
Directed by Robert Kauzlaric.
Produced by Strawdog Theatre Company.
At Factory Theater, Chicago.
A Comedy Tonight.
Continuing its 29th season, the now itinerant Strawdog Theatre Company takes up its own existential theme of “exile” with Shakespeare’s complexly beautiful Cymbeline. A tragicomedy containing pastoral, fantastic, romantic, and historical elements—many of them concise allusions to his earlier plays—Shakespeare’s Cymbeline finds a coherent, quirky, and imaginative translation to the stage under the direction of Robert Kauzlaric. Making creative use of a small space and few props (as is Strawdog’s hallmark), the production trims the lengthy play to a reasonable two-and-a-half hours, ham’ring the play’s comedic aspects for all they’re worth—to the entertainment of many, I’d guess—but to the brisk and mechanical detriment of its poignant, dramatic core, which, regrettably, compromises one’s emotional investment long before the late act’s battle flags are flown.
Perhaps the best thing Director Kauzlaric does with his production is to clarify the play’s set-up, which is notoriously convoluted. To do this, he frames the play with a theatrical address from Pisanio (Michaela Petro), Posthumus’ servant. Set in ancient Britain, circa the turn of the millennium, during the reign of Augustus Caesar, the backstory is as follows:
King Cymbeline (Brandon Saunders), having lost his two sons some years past, is now married to a domineering widow, the Queen (Sarah Goeden), who connives to have her doltish son Cloten (Gage Wallace) married to Cymbeline’s daughter, the fair and faithful Imogen (Daniella Pereira). Imogen, however, refuses the brutish Cloten and loves the honorable yet (alack!) poor Posthumus (Sam Hubbard), to whom, in fact, she has just taken in marriage against her father’s wishes (Cymbeline desiring as his Queen desires). The result, at the start of the play, is Posthumus’ exile.
Much of the play turns on Imogen’s preeminent fidelity and the misapprehension of her character, not to mention her and others’ misapprehensions. Indeed, finding himself in Rome among bragging men and the nefarious Iachimo (Jose Nateras), Posthumus, at the heated provocation of this nefarious fellow, wages Imogen’s chastity against ten thousand gold ducats. Iachimo is confident of his victory in this wager, and upon returning from his attempted seduction of Imogen presents to Posthumus seemingly irrefutable proof of her faithlessness, which proof incites Posthumus to renounce her wholly and, moreover, to have her killed by none other than his loyal servant Pisanio.
What follows from this (only the first two acts) is an adventurous tale with many windings, which, I think, is more delightful in its witness than in its dry exposition. Suffice to say, the play concludes in romantically comedic fashion, with love granted for most and clemency for all.
What virtue Director Kauzlaric’s production retains in the clarity of Cymbeline’s many narrative strands is earned if not at the expense than at the neglect of the psychological and emotional depth of its principal characters. This expeditious neglect, however, renders the last three-fifths of the production tiresomely fatuous: since, failing to produce a poignant sense of loss in the early, emotionally climactic moments, the cloying sheen of comedy soon loses its dramatic hold.
To begin with perhaps the least crucial of these principles, Cloten, while conceived with uncommon comedic genius by Gage Wallace, becomes not merely obnoxiously doltish in his portrayal, his actions on this account seeming simply ignorant with none of the conscious malice in his nature that makes his character interestingly wicked. In other words, he truly seems like he is mentally handicapped. The odd effect of this is sympathy for a character who’s too stupid to realize his own clever innuendos and who loses his head (literally) in an embarrassing and defenseless defeat. What’s most odd in this directorial choice is that, of all the characters, I felt the most sympathy for this bumbling Cloten. An interesting choice, but wherefore I don’t understand. Nevertheless, Wallace’s Cloten is easily the most delightful performance in the play.
The other dimensionless principles brought little gracious charm to their roles. Sam Hubbard’s Posthumus is a flat and mechanical performance, demonstrating only but the superficies of love and betrayal—the lovey-dovey eyes contra the furrowed brow—while capturing no honestly grounded emotion. Like Daniella Pereira’s Imogen—who is just as egregiously emotative in her tragic moments (although she fares much better in her comedic)—many opportunities for heartfelt pathos go by uninvested, skimmed over in the production’s brisk pacing. What of the devastation of learning one’s love has been unfaithful with a vicious villain? What of the earth-rending betrayal of discovering one’s love has ordered to have you killed? On stage, it amounted to naught but the hasty—albeit well-articulated—utterances of poetic words. Better I think the production were four hours and the comedy were earned in the tears of earnest pain!
The remaining players are, true to the text, more acceptably flat and clichéd, though I wished for more nuance even in them. Jose Nateras as Iachimo captures the slimy insidiousness of his character but lacked specificity in his late confession to convey either the sincerity or falsity of his character’s inner change; nevertheless, his scenes with Hubbard’s Posthumus are some of the production’s sharpest dramatic exchanges. Sarah Goeden’s Queen is the embodiment of an evil Disney stepmother and does well in commanding her sway over the beguiled Cymbeline, whom Brandon Saunders plays with understandable testiness. And then there is the Strawdog all-star, Michaela Petro, whose Pisanio, like Wallace’s Cloten, carries the production with a spunky energy and a theatrical sensibility that enthralls us in each of her scenes.
Again, Director Kauzlaric’s production of Cymbeline is an economical and straightforwardly comedic interpretation of a less-produced Shakespearean treat; and, while this execution is at the expense of the play’s more profound aspects, there is perhaps reason enough in this to see it for yourself.
Reviewed on 23 January 2017.
Playing at the Factory Theater, 1623 W. Hubbard St., Chicago. Tickets are $30. For tickets and information, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or visit Strawdog.org. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m. through February 25th (Note: All performances have ground-level access and are wheelchair accessible. Access Project performance is Sunday February 5th at 4 p.m., with touch tour at 2:45 p.m. Industry performance is Monday, February 13th at 8 p.m.). Running time is two hours and forty minutes with one intermission.