Arena Stage has turned into a veritable House of Mirth -- with that banjo dancer, Stephen Wade, in the Old Vat Room; improvisational comics Monteith and Rand in the Kreeger; and now in the Arena, William Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," a play which may not be meant for guffaws, but in a ridiculously solemn staging by director David Chambers is getting them nonetheless.
"Cymbeline" is one of the least revived of Shakespeare's works and not without reason. The odds are stacked against it from the start. Preposterous of incident and maladroit in the resolution of a plot that isn't worth beans to begin with, it is a virtual hodgepodge of bombast, courtly sentiments, grand guignol, melodrama and fairy tale. The psychological make-up of its characters, if ever it seemed coherent, sorely taxes our 20th-century sense of make-believe. Alfred Lord Tennyson is said to have preferred the play over all other Shakespeare works, but Samuel Johnson, with a clearer eye, called it "an imbecility." And George Bernard Shaw once took it upon himself to rewrite the last act.
As a delirious phantasmagoria, induced by magic potions or mind-altering drugs, "Cymbeline" might possibly appear somewhat less inane than it is. But Chambers, whose last assignment at Arena was a "Midsummer Night's Dream" that whipped earth, air and water into a great cosmic swirl, is apparently bereft of inspiration this time.
The large cast brings a heightened intensity to the drama, as if intensity alone might force our credibility or at least our silence. But none of the actors--good actors, too, under other circumstances -- escapes unscathed. Their collective fervor merely edges the play closer and closer to ludicrousness, and then right over the brink. If you can wait that long, the final half hour is unintentionally merry, indeed.
Basically, Shakespeare has two stories to tell: the testing of the fair and virtuous Imogen (Caris Corfman in a performance that suggests she breaks up her princessly duties by serving mead at a druidic version of the Playboy Club); and the restoration of King Cymbeline's long-lost sons to places of honor in the realm. Imogen finds herself caught up in all manner of intrigues concocted by her exiled husband, her wicked stepmother and her stepmother's moronic son, Cloten. When she flees the court, she naturally stumbles into the very cave where Cymbeline's sons, her brothers, have been raised in ignorance of their noble birth -- which is more or less how the second tale comes into the picture.
If you add to the fundamental confusions a fair amount of cross-dressing, a poison that induces a simulated state of death but eventually leaves its takers refreshed, an Italian scoundrel who'd besmirch his mother's hem to win a bet and a full-scale Roman invasion, you have a notion of the raw material with which Arena is grappling.
Although "Cymbeline" is painfully slow to start, the excesses really mount up in Act IV, when Cloten is beheaded by one of Cymbeline's sons, who first brandishes the severed head on the end of a sword, then rolls it across the stage, rather like a bowling ball. That's merely an hors d'oeuvre. Cloten's body is subsequently laid to rest next to Imogen, who is assumed dead, because she's downed that mischievous poison. Since Cloten had earlier taken the precaution of donning the clothes of Imogen's husband, Posthumus, she naturally assumes, upon awakening, that the bloody stump next to her is her mate's. "O Posthumus, alas," she moans, as she plunges her hands into the gore, "where is thy head?" The query signals the start of outright laughter in the audience.
Shortly after, a Roman officer strides on, eyes Imogen prostrate on the headless corpse and asks, "What's thy interest in this sad wreck?" The laughs redouble. From then on, it's all downhill if you hold Shakespeare in some esteem, or all uphill if you're looking to last out the evening.
Back in Cymbeline's court, the rotund doctor, whose business it is to help straighten out the muddled plot, seemingly can't say an unfunny word. An overwrought Posthumus, returned from exile, whacks a disguised Imogen alongside the head and sheer hilarity erupts. "Does the world go round?" asks Cymbeline in his amazement at the amazing turn of events. As Mark Hammer intones the line, it sounds as if he's asking "Is the Pope Catholic?"
If time and thought have been lavished on this production, neither shows. Ming Cho Lee, who designed the soaring mountain for "K-2," has provided a pedestrian set, a concave platform bordered by dreary metal trees. Marjorie Slaiman's normally reliable costumes make shapely performers look dumpy, which gives you some notion of how the less shapely ones look. The stylized battle scenes could well be taking place in a discotheque, equipped with strobe lightning and stereophonic thunder.
I can't imagine that the next five weeks will be much of a pleasure for any of the actors, who have to pretend to a certain momentousness at the risk of their employment. But months from now--when other parts and other productions have eased their present agony -- I suspect they will have their stories to tell about this disaster. I also suspect they'll be chuckling as fully as the opening night audience did. This is how backstage yarns are born.
CYMBELINE. By William Shakespeare. Directed by David Chambers; music, Mel Marvin; sets, Ming Cho Lee; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Frances Aronson; stage combat, Stephen White and Paul Zawadsky. With Robert Burr, Charles Janasz, Kevin Donovan, Halo Wines, Caris Corfman, Peter Francis-James, Mark Hammer, Henry Strozier, Daniel Benzali, Philip Casnoff and Richard Bauer. At Arena Stage through Jan. 9.