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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Silly Shakespeare

Theater Reviews

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MilwaukeeShakespeare can sometimes be faulted for staging productions that display more polish than punch. Its production of Cymbeline demonstrates how effectively it can achieve both, creating an entertaining spectacle from one of Shakespeare’s silliest plays.

Written after he’d penned his greatest tragedies, comedies and histories, Cymbeline appears to be an exercise by the playwright to see just how dexterously he could coax threads of each genre into the effusive bow signifying the end of the play. Productions of Cymbeline often suffer from over-effulgence or excessive dearth, either taking it too seriously or not at all. Milwaukee Shakespeare’s Cymbeline chooses a balanced course, throwing the play’s comic and tragic elements into relief and wisely leaving history to take care of itself. The production’s success owes as much to its unselfconscious tone as it does to Sarah Sokolovic’s performance as its lead protagonist, Imogen. She keeps the pathos alive and believable. Her joy-infused confusion at being summoned to Wales by her banished husband Posthumus is heartwarming, as is her phlegmatic denial of Iachimo’s lecherous advances. Imogen comes across as brave, passionate, loyal and occasionally impudent when circumstance demands it—emotions that don’t come as naturally to Posthumus.

Wayne T. Carr takes a little time easing into this role, but by the end of his first soliloquy proffers a spark that is further kindled when he learns that his wife is dead. By the finale, his wretchedness makes him almost worthy of Imogen’s love.

As is often the case, it’s tempting to root for the bad guy in the play. Despite Iachimo’s (Todd Denning) base proclivities, one can’t help but feel he’s more sensible to Imogen’s charms than Posthumus. Nor do his appetites appear as nauseating as those of the feckless Cloten. In the bedchamber scene, Iachimo’s advances are both vile and mesmerizing. A shimmering golden curtain is one of the few props the production allows itself: at times used as a semi-transparent boundary; in the above scene, sensuously draped over Imogen’s supine form. It marks an overall simplicity and elegance in the stage elements of this production, lending it a unity often lacking due to the multiple locations in which the play takes place.

This relative conservatism gives way only when the god Jupiter appears as a silhouetted profile accompanied by a booming voice. Elsewhere his entrance might seem ridiculous. Here it can be forgiven, providing the audience with a much-needed jolt at the end of a lengthy production and impressing them (albeit forcefully) with the fantastical element of the play. Even in the far-fetched final scene, the cast manages to nimbly inch its way around the chasm of inanity into which it might easily fall. The audience is permitted to leave the theater entertained and unscathed—as clear a mark of success as anyone staging this unwieldy play could hope for.