We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
All you really need to know to prepare yourself for Cymbeline is that it’s (a) later Shakespeare, (b) lesser Shakespeare, and (c) very, very silly Shakespeare, at least storywise. I mean, if you think the fake-poison/misdirected message plot in Romeo and Juliet leans a little hard on the plausible coincidence, this is not the convoluted, improbable romance for you.
That said, a public that’s adventurous enough to make a prime-time hit out of Glee might well be willing to take a flyer on this tale of a virtuous British princess and the peon she’s fallen for, much to the displeasure of her father King Cymbeline. Complicating matters are a wicked stepmother, who’s bent on marrying off the lovely Imogen to her boorish snob of a son—his name is Cloten, so you know right off how you’re supposed to feel about him—and a bunch of Italians, who are as usual up to no good in the departments of romance and public affairs; there’s a banished courtier disguised as a woodsman, two long-lost princes living the rustic life without an inkling that they were born to better things, bellicose Romans threatening war and demanding tribute—and did I mention that at one point Jupiter turns up? Because at one point Jupiter turns up.
The good news is that director Rebecca Bayla Taichman has laid out the play’s complications about as clearly as anyone could hope for; it’s pretty clean storytelling, what she’s put onstage. (Pretty pretty storytelling, too, with that giant tree painted in shadows and light across the back of the stage, with the Britons in their golds and the Romans in their imposing leathers, with Gretchen Hall’s winning Imogen radiant in purest white amid it all.) A storyteller and a little girl, paging through a giant book that produces the occasional pop-up tree— plus other, more disturbing surprises—frame the story helpfully and provide the occasional narrative shortcut, and in a script that features plenty of direct audience address (even in Taichman’s pared-back edit), the device seems less twee than it might. Mark Bedard might suffer his slings and arrows a little squeakily as Imogen’s beloved, and not everyone will appreciate the considerable if presumably considered idiosyncrasies of Leo Marks’ preening, posing Cloten. (Is that William Shatner he’s channeling? Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice? I confess it’s a mystery to me, if ultimately an entertaining one.) The assembled forces play the earnest emotional reunions and increasingly preposterous unveilings of the final scenes as if they suspect that there’s “Oh-come-on-now” comedy inescapably encoded in them, and the result is a surprisingly quick summing up that’s brimming with both heart and good humor. It’s still later, lesser, loopier Shakespeare—but it turns out that even when the Bard’s at less than his best, a stylish staging can be something striking indeed.