By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; C01
Measured against his greatest dramas, "Cymbeline" counts as an iffy achievement for Shakespeare, what with subplots recycled from weightier efforts and characters lacking in lightning-bolt impact. And yet, few of his plays match this one for the radiance of its outcome, for the wise, conciliatory posture it assumes toward the forces of chaos and such sins as pride, vanity and jealousy.
"Pardon's the word to all," the king of the Britons, Cymbeline, declares at the end of the play, extending reprieves even to, of all people, the invading Roman soldiers, miraculously vanquished in this tale set around the time of Christ. That spirit of all things being equal is reflected in the tragicomedy's most famously beautiful lines, sung by the play's most valiant characters in a forest elegy for one of its least:
"Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust."
Attempting to conjure the playwright in this ruminative and nostalgic vein, director Rebecca Bayla Taichman delivers a thoughtful, gently ironic "Cymbeline" for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. It's a genial rendering, filled with pleasing directorial touches, even if the production's disparate elements never completely coalesce. Although you admire the staging - and in particular, the performances of Michael Rudko, Justin Badger and Alex Morf as the rusticated exiles who come to the heroine's rescue - this "Cymbeline" feels a little unsteady, especially in the early going.
Perhaps the most vital refinement that needs to be made is in the technical arena of vocal articulation and projection; in the first half-hour or so of the evening in the Lansburgh Theatre, many actors were swallowing words or, in some extreme cases, declaiming into the wings or the back of the stage. Some of the worst occurred in the crucial scene in which devilish Iachimo (Adrian LaTourelle) goads pure-hearted Posthumus (Mark Bedard) into an ill-considered bet over the fidelity of Posthumus's love, Imogen (Gretchen Hall). (Such dependable vets as Franchelle Stewart Dorn, playing the wicked Queen, and Ted van Griethuysen, as the titular king, had no discernible trouble.)
By the time my ears adjusted to the uneven sound production, I'd felt shut out for quite a bit of the plot's groundwork, which is a shame, because Taichman has a proven knack for framing difficult plays in tantalizing ways. Her saucy, la dolce vita "The Taming of the Shrew" in 2007 remains one of the smartest nights of Shakespeare the company has offered.
Her "Cymbeline" takes the narrative route of another late-career romance with which it is often grouped: "The Winter's Tale." She imagines it not as history, comedy or tragedy, but as a children's book, and creates here the characters of a storyteller (Dee Pelletier), who reads the tale of King Cymbeline to a young girl (Zoe Wynn Briscoe).
This idea is not totally new; turning "Cymbeline" into lore passed down through generations is a strategy that has been adopted by directors such as the great experimentalist Andrei Serban and outfits as highly regarded as the Royal Shakespeare Company. With characters and situations that would have, by this late stage of Shakespeare's career, been familiar to his audiences, "Cymbeline" does seem a vehicle well-suited to treatment as storybook material. And, for latter-day lovers of fairy tales, it even has, a la the Brothers Grimm, the macabre image of a young woman waking to the sight of a headless body.
The plot details feel at times like a walk through Shakespeare's greatest hits: a woman disguised as a man; a king unable to see a daughter's constancy; a rogue planting the false impression of sexual betrayal. At its core, though, "Cymbeline" is the tale of a shattered royal family that implausibly but movingly finds the way to right itself, chiefly through the efforts of the indefatigable Imogen.
The stylized environment created by Taichman and her set designer, Riccardo Hernandez, merges the perspectives of a child and a writer. A huge tree looms as a backdrop, and on a platform half-visible through its branches, you get occasional glimpses of characters drifting, as if floating out of the margins of our imaginations. The volume of Miranda Hoffman's shawl for Dorn's nasty Queen and fur-trimmed cape for van Griethuysen's Cymbeline conveys the exaggerated scale a little girl might associate with royalty. Even the battle scenes are choreographed with a kind of tai chi otherworldliness. And when the foolishly bellicose Cloten (Leo Marks) appears in the forest on the back of a 20th-century invention, you're reminded of the whimsical connections forged in a young mind.
Hall's likable Imogen is a city girl amusingly out of her element when she takes to the road for a hopeful reunion in Wales with Posthumus. It's in the sticks, in fact, that the play finds its most resonant moments. There, Imogen meets Rudko's Morgan, in hiding with the two young sons, Badger's Polydore and Morf's Cadwal, whom years before he'd stolen from Cymbeline. In one of the evening's cutest gags, the innocent Cadwal practices the same affectionate greeting for everyone he encounters - a bit that's topped off nicely in the reunion scene with the king.
Rudko's soft-spoken firmness makes Morgan a deeply appealing figure, and Badger and Morf - what a great pair of names - infuse the young woodsmen with boyish brio. None of the other performances come up quite to their level. As a result, a "Cymbeline" that wants to leave you bathed in warmth only manages to be kind of lukewarm.
Cymbeline by William Shakespeare. Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman. Lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound and music, Andre Pluess; choreography, Zoe Scofield; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; voice and text, Ellen O'Brien; specialty object designer, Janie Geiser. With William Youmans, Mark Bedard, Tom Story, Todd Scofield, Andrew Long. About 2Â½ hours. Through March 6 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Visit www.shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.