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Brilliant Strangeness 

Jenny Bacon makes Shakespeare's odd play worth it

Wednesday, Jun 20 2001
Why does anyone bother with Cymbeline? It's a sprawling, florid, unbelievable play that ends with a series of carefully laid coincidences. Yes, it's beautiful, but it's also famously hard to produce, and its rewards just aren't as rich as those of Hamlet or Lear. Shakespeare wrote it when he was already an old master of the London stage. Here his poetry has the ring of grand virtuosity, a look-what-I-can-do showoffiness, as if the point of the plot's convolutions was to prove to younger playwrights that he still had it.

The play is named after an actual British king who ruled around the time of Christ, but it's about his fictional daughter, Imogen. (It should really be called Imogen.) Against her parents' wishes Imogen marries a worthy, gallant, but poor young man with the funny name Posthumus, and suffers a series of strange and disgusting trials. She's one of Shakespeare's most challenging women, both for the actress who wants to play her and for the other characters -- Cymbeline, the Queen, Posthumus' treacherous friend Iachimo -- who try to bend her to their will. Imogen alone is an excellent reason to bother with Cymbeline -- if you have a woman like Jenny Bacon for the role.

I've never seen Bacon before. This opening show of the California Shakespeare Festival 2001 season is her local debut, and she's another example of the strong, fresh talent recruited for the festival since Jonathan Moscone took over last year. (Director Daniel Fish also belongs to this category.) In the first week of the show's run, Bacon tripped on a step onstage and dislocated her shoulder; she had to be rushed off in an ambulance. Apparently she was wearing high heels. Now she's back on the job without heels, and with a barely perceptible stiffness in her arm. (I should point out that a lot of actresses have done heroic work in heels at Cal Shakes since Moscone's arrival. In last year's Love's Labour's Lost they trotted around a lumpy knoll of grass; in Taming of the Shrew they wrestled.) Imogen is not a quiet or passive role -- you can't play her in a chair -- and Bacon manages to fling her injured self around the stage without disturbing her natural, spontaneous delivery of Shakespeare's language. That's not easy.

In this production Imogen is literally the only woman onstage. She wears a burgundy dress to set her off from a cast of men in gray suede suits with ties. Even the evil Queen is played, queenishly, by a man: Chan Casey gives her a pinched, self-delighted, prissy high voice. At first it's odd to see a white male Queen in a suit with gaudy ropes of jewelry opposite a black King (L. Peter Callender), but the casting emphasizes the strangeness of their marriage. There's no love between Cymbeline and his wife. Unlike Imogen they're past the age of romance, and they stand not for themselves but for warring political interests.

Strangeness is also integral to the play. "Grotesqueries swirl about her," wrote the critic Harold Bloom, "and yet Imogen remains always sublime, antithetical to the grotesque." Since this sentence is quoted in the press material, I assume director Fish wants to emphasize it in his show. The men who swirl about Imogen all seem overheated to the point of caricature, starting with Casey's Queen. Stephen Barker Turner's gallant Posthumus is painfully straight (except for one fine speech), more like Gallant from Highlights than like someone you would actually respect for his honesty. Andy Murray's Cloten -- Imogen's loutish stepbrother, who wants to marry her -- is, sure enough, a great big lout. And Jonathan Haugen's double-dealing Iachimo has a facetious arrogance that sometimes slips over the top.

Not all of the caricatures work, but they do make Imogen seem human, and Bacon seethes with real emotion. When Iachimo tries to seduce her, she refuses him not because she's modest but out of sheer, fervid love for Posthumus (which we believe). And when Pisanio the servant brings a letter from Posthumus, Imogen tilts back her head and exults, "Oh, for a horse with wings!" and no one can doubt that she wants the man who now, for complicated reasons, won't trust her.

One brilliant grotesquerie that Fish achieves here is Posthumus' dream of Jupiter, rendered in a moonlike wash of blue with stark, bright orange footlights. Lee Williams rolls on, in a wheelchair, to perform the song as a smoky jazz ballad over a spare blues rhythm played by Gina Leishman on the cello. The scene takes care of the strange song without making fun of Shakespeare's excesses -- and on a warm night in the Orinda hills, at the end of a three-hour show, it's also a virtuosic moment of beauty.


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