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Huntington Shreds Shakespeare's Cymbeline

By Ashwini Sukthankar

It would need better actors than these to turn this sickly Shakespearian failure play into something with the slightest dramatic appeal. The Huntington Theatre Company's production of Cymbeline, with its crude Celtic glamour and fairytale ending, never rises above melodrama.

The winding plot, with its endless coincidences, cannot fail to confuse. Cymbeline plays out every cliche about lost heirs, wicked stepmothers, all-conquering love, attempted rape and absurd misunderstandings against the background of the Roman invasion of Britain.

Howard Witt plays Cymbeline, King of Britain, a man trying to save his country from the Romans and his daughter from a deplorable misalliance. The role has some emotional potential, but Witt is unable to rise above his encumbering royal robes, and succeeds only in seeming like a temperamental old man.

Sheila Allen, as Cymbeline's evil second wife, is a mere caricature who tries to convey malice by flinging her arms into the air at regular intervals.

The king's daughter, Imogen, played by Lyn Wright, has a similarly meager repertoire of gestures. Furthermore, her flat delivery and stilted English accent can only irritate. When Imogen urges her servant, Pisanio, to "plunge thy dagger into the mansion of my love, my heart," the viewer is sorely tempted to egg him on.


dir. Larry Carpenter

at the Huntington Theater

Through April 5

Bryant Weeks makes a fitting mate for the fair Imogen. He portrays the jealousy and frustration of the low-born Posthumus Leonatus by tossing his hair and groaning piteously.

John Christopher Jones is the one bright point on this relentlessly dull cast. As Cloten, the loutish son of the queen, he is an indecisive, brutish, self-contradictory delight. He does not make the mistake of trying to seem pathetic but makes his unrequited love for Imogen appear merely amusing.

The only other highlight of the show is Marcia Madeira's lighting. The pools of color bring an element of interest to the half-hearted battle scene which occurs at the culmination of the play, making the silver blades of the swords glow red or blue.

The director, Larry Carpenter, seems ineffectual or worse. For example, the actors' words are often lost as they try to make themselves heard above the music. It is also irritating to have other actors constantly interposing themselves between the speaker and the audience.

To be just, Carpenter has a singularly unwieldy stage to work with. It seems appealing enough at the start of the play, with its mottled sky, its rich backdrops and proliferation of Druidic carvings, but the self-conscious surrealism begins to pall before long. In addition, the props are all concentrated at the back and sides of the stage, leaving an expanse of unrelieved, barren floor space in the middle.

Frankly, this play is awful. An optimistic viewer may be able to extract some cheap laughs from the absurdities, of course. There is a misunderstanding involving a headless body, for example, which had this particular audience in stitches. Especially since the body is brought on stage, dripping gore from the severed neck.

The climax, where all the tangles are unraveled and Love reigns supreme, is even better. The reconciliation of husband and wife, father and daughter, bitter foes, father and long-lost sons, Romans and Britons, master and servant, etc. provides enough humor to make the preceding hours of boredom seem worthwhile. There is even a moment of divine intervention to add the final touch. As an audience member remarked audibly: "It's better than a Saturday Night Live skit."

Cymbeline's early claim to fame was that the poet Tennyson had apparently died with a copy of the play open on his lap. After seeing it produced at the Huntington Theatre, the inevitable reaction is: "Who can blame him?"

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