Arena Stage's production of "Cymbeline" sports more fancy frills than it knows how to handle. In the end, they almost do it in. Happily, Shakespeare's play is saved by a cast that runs from solid to superb.
The play is a mixed bag from the bard's waning years, resounding with echoes of nearly all that preceded it: the sweep of the histories, the whimsy of the comedies, and the somber tone of the tragedies among them. But it doesn't seem quite to fit together -- making it troublesome for scholars and actors alike.
Set largely in Britain, still under the yoke of Rome, the play treats the travails of Imogene -- daughter of Cymbeline, King of Britain, and bride to Posthumus Leonatus, a gentleman of meager means. In a fit of pique -- subtly encouraged by Imogene's stepmother, the wily queen -- Cymbeline banishes Posthumus as unfit to be wedded to royalty.
For nearly the whole play, Imogene strives to get him back, while braving unfounded jealousy, starvation, poison and battle. Traveling incognito, as a boy, she journeys through a thicket of subplots and complots: the queen and her son Cloten's unbridled ambition, an ill-advised wager between Posthumus and an arrogant Italian noble, a war with Rome, the sudden appearance of Cymbeline's long-lost heirs. . . The trip has a happy conclusion, though, with Imogene at long last revealing herself.
In such a brief review, it's impossible not to slight a host of admirable performances, but Caris Corfman is an appealing and tenacious Imogene, giving the role stature and humanity. Halo Wines fairly relishes the part of wicked queen, and Daniel Benzali is close to brilliant as Cloten, the foolish, cowardly and mean-spirited lord who -- in Benzali's comic interpretation -- can't say "mother" without a nervous stutter.
The production's problems start, in fact, with Cloten's untimely death. Once he loses his head, at the hands of Cymbeline's errant son Guiderius, director David Chambers ventures toward farce. The actors toy with the disengaged head and body -- props at once inept and amusing -- and while the business gets laughs, it shatters a carefully established mood.
Matters threaten to careen completely out of control with a battle scene that evokes moments from "Enter the Dragon," vapor rising out of the stage under a manacled Posthumus (making Peter Francis-James look as if he's having a steam bath), and piped-in music -- well and sparingly used in the first act -- that gets more and more obtrusive. By the time things settle down, it's almost too late -- the play a near-victim of theatrical technology. CYMBELINE -- At Arena Stage through January 9.