Taking a cue from the mixed sources of the play -- legends about Britain in Roman times and Italian Renaissance tales from Boccaccio's "Decameron" -- the off-Broadway Theater for a New Audience has introduced elements of Samurai Japan and the American Wild West to Shakespeare's play that combines fairy tale, black comedy and patriotic chronicle.
The play's surrealism has won it many enemies over the years, including Ben Johnson, who found it "absurd" and George Bernard Shaw who denounced it as "stagy trash of the lowest melodramatic order" and had the audacity to rewrite the last act in a play he titled "Cymbeline Refinished." But many have loved it, including Alfred Lord Tennyson who admired "Cymbeline" so much he asked that a copy of it be buried with him.
First staged at the Globe Theater in 1611, "Cymbeline" is a late work in the Shakespearean canon that has been a favorite with actresses from Ellen Terry to Vanessa Redgrave and Dame Judi Dench because of the role of Imogen. The current production at the Lucille Lortel Theater through March 3 had its premiere at the Other Place Theater in Stratford last fall at the invitation of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The invite came as a result of the Theater for a New Audience's reputation for quality productions of Shakespeare marked by a fresh approach. The production of "Cymbeline" is directed by Bartlett Sher, artistic director of Seattle's Intiman Theater, whose first directorial engagement with Theater for a New Audience -- Harley Granville Barker's "Waste" two seasons ago -- won the Obie Award for best off-Broadway play.
Sher has worked wonders with a play that can be awkward in less gifted hands.
He opens the play with dialogue between two minor characters listed in the program as "story tellers" who provide the background for what is to happen onstage, helping to simplify a complex plot and making the play seem deceptively simple as it relates a tale of betrayal and revenge that ends in happy reconciliation.
Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline of Britain, has been placed in charge of her plotting stepmother, who has arranged for Imogen's husband, Posthumous, to be banished so that her own son by a former marriage, the loutish Cloden, can woo Imogen and become Cymbeline's heir through marriage to her. A secondary plot involves Cymbeline's own two sons who were kidnapped 20 years ago by a banished nobleman.
In the course of the play, Shakespeare makes reference to former plays, particularly in his revival of "Othello's" Iago in the personage of Iachimo, a villainous Roman who pretends to have seduced Imogen. He also parodies his reliance in many previous plays on such contrivances as disguises, mistaken identities, the reappearance of long-lost children, and gender cross-dressing.
Dressing is very important in Sher's production that introduces color-coded costuming to the production of Shakespearean plays. The colors here are red and black with some shades of rose thrown in. Cloten is given scarlet Samurai warrior uniform to wear, and Belarius, the kidnapper of the princes, and his two "sons" are togged out in full cowboy gear including bullwhips.
The narrators who open the show and provide commentary throughout are costumed in modern suits worn with bow ties and fedoras that make them look like 1930s G-men. There are Japanese parasols sprouting flowers in a garden scene and weaving crazily through a snowstorm. Battle lances are not just bamboo, but blue bamboo. Visually, the production is stunning.
And so, for the most part, is the acting. Erica Tazel is winning as Imogen but perhaps a tad to ingénue for the role of a spirited and rebellious princess. She is an actress with a sweetness and radiant stage presence who can be expected to flower with experience. As her father, Cymbeline, Robert Stattel is adept in portraying a chronically grouchy monarch whose authority is continually challenged by antic events.
Boris McGiver is outstanding as the handsome but untrustworthy Iachimo, acting in the bravura style and speaking lines in traditional Shakespearean cadence not often encountered on the American stage. Andrew Weems makes Cloten the kind of lout who borders on the ridiculous as a serious plotter.
Earl Hindman as gruff-voice Belarius and Roderick Hill and Pete Starrett as his two "sons" make an amusing cowboy trio, speaking their lines in a nasal manner suitable to men who are at home on the range. Randy Danson plays the wicked queen broadly with laughable regality, and Michael Stuhlbarg is a sterling Posthumous.
Set designer Christopher Akerlind has created a world that crosses space and time through color accented by yellow in the form of a curtain drawn diagonally across the stage. Costumes devised by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward carry out the color scheme and the multicultural aspects of this production beautifully.
Theater-goers will get a chance to compare this "Cymbeline" to a British production that is coming from London's Bankside Theater to the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 5-17.