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Washington Shakespeare Company earns another notch in its (presumably funky vintage thrift-shop) belt with its new production of Cymbeline. Joe Banno’s edgily clever approach to this notoriously problematic romance banks on a heavily edited, updated script, an arch, stylishly surreal design by Tony Cisek, and audacious directorial flourishes: Characters exchange correspondence via FedEx, a TV plays The Untouchables, and in the evening’s most pointed contemporary pop-culture reference, an executioner struggles to pull on a pair of gloves that don’t quite fit.
It’s not just a showy exercise, though; Banno (Washington City Paper’s opera critic) indulges in political and social commentary but leavens it with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek whimsy; he makes a remarkably entertaining evening out of a play that doesn’t know if it wants to be comedic farce, dramatic history, cautionary tragedy, or a little of everything at once.
With assistant director and dramaturge Cam Magee, Banno pares the play way down, but its plot is still outrageously complex. A princess, Imogen, marries a man her father, Cymbeline, doesn’t like, earning his anger, her new husband’s banishment, and a divorce against her will. Imogen refuses all other suitors, though, and her defiance also provokes her stepmother the queen, who’d hoped, for transparently political reasons, to foist her strapping dolt of a son (from a previous marriage) on Im.
Mama’s favorite boy, a walking testosterone factory named Cloten, isn’t the type to interpret “Get away from me, you filthy pig” as a no, and he continues his campaign for Imogen’s hand, apparently oblivious to the fact that he’d be the last man to win her even were she not still pining for her absent sweetheart. (Cloten’s “love-suit to me hath been as fearful as a siege,” the exasperated princess mutters at one point.)
Meanwhile Posthumus, Imogen’s banished love, languishes in what the script says is Rome, though in Banno’s updated staging it’s actually a Little Italy peopled with fedora-wearing wiseguys who sprinkle Shakespeare’s verse with the occasional extra “dese” or “dose.” At a sidewalk coffee bar one afternoon, Posthumus is introduced to Iachimo, a tough-talking braggart of a capo who manages to express unchivalrous doubts about women’s fidelity in general and Imogen’s in particular, before the froth is off the cappuccino. Because this is Shakespeare (and one of his more misogynist efforts, at that), the two men soon find themselves on opposite sides of a wager that will send Iachimo off to Cymbeline’s palace to try to make naughty with the princess.
Complications, quite naturally, ensue. Iachimo fails in his bid to bed Imogen but sneaks into her bedchamber and learns enough about her physique to convince poor Posthumus that Imogen has played the wanton. Posthumus, like any self-respecting cuckold, takes out a contract on her, but—wouldn’t you know it—the servant he picks to do the deed can’t bring himself to follow through, and instead helps Imogen flee the court disguised as a man.
Then the fun starts. Suffice it to say that a pair of long-lost princes, a backwoodsman who’s actually a nobleman banished unjustly for a treason he didn’t commit, and a small war with invading Romans (er, Mafiosi) eventually figure into the plot, and in the end Shakespeare proffers one of his more improbable all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusions. You know the type: “I’m not really the charwoman, I’m the sister you sold into slavery in Tangiers 32 years ago, and here’s the birthmark to prove it. Sadly, that means we can’t marry.”
Banno and Magee’s editing makes as much sense of this as anyone is ever likely to make, though it might be argued that some of the cuts come at the expense of fully rounded characterization. Then again, the one-dimensionality of the king and queen, and of Posthumus, may have to do with the script, which doesn’t quite flesh them out, or with the actors, not all of whom turn in polished performances. Even Michelle Shupe’s Imogen is a little wan, though her despair upon hearing her husband’s execution order is genuinely touching.
John Emmert, however, has a grand and sleazy time with Iachimo (though his accent, to my admittedly Southern ear, has as much Rhode Island as Manhattan Island in it). And Christopher Janson, as the older of the misplaced princes, has a kind of quiet, centered air, a seemingly organic dignity that makes him stand out in what is essentially an unremarkable supporting role.
Paul Takacs is a brash and impressively brawny Cloten, stealing scenes with sheer outsize energy; he’s at both his funniest and most pathetic in a scene featuring one of Banno’s more inspired updates. The text calls for Cloten to woo Imogen with courtly tunes played by an ensemble of musicians outside her bedroom early one morn; Takacs parks himself in a metal chair with an enormous boombox, shattering the quiet with a rock ballad. Curiously enough, Takacs manages to make this buffoon of a character just sufficiently human to inspire audience shock when he meets a brutal and sudden end.
Rena Cherry Brown is a kick as a saucy maid who zings Cloten with a series of wise-ass putdowns that originally belonged to an anonymous lord of the court. Banno’s decision to give these waspish but dead-on-observant lines to Brown helps redress some, though not nearly all, of the play’s misogyny. Cymbeline does, after all, still tell us that “there’s no motion that tends to vice in man but…it is the woman’s part.” Flattery, deceit, lust, “rank thoughts,” ambition, coveting: “All faults that have a name…why, [they’re] hers, in part or all.”
That rant is Posthumus’, and he delivers it after he’s been cruelly misled about Imogen’s virtue, so perhaps it’s not quite as stinging an assessment of woman’s nature as it first seems. But we are reminded in the end of the queen’s duplicity—she’s been trying to poison everyone in sight—and Cymbeline’s final words are these: “Most delicate fiend. Who can read a woman?”