"Cymbeline" is a Shakespearean fairy tale, complete with a wicked stepmother, lost children, a journey in the woods and, ultimately, a happy ending.
At Washington's Kennedy Center, director Adrian Noble's imaginative Royal Shakespeare Company production reinforces the play's fairy-tale qualities from the opening speeches, which he has re-assigned to a storyteller character, who shares the crucial introductory exposition with a host of hooded listeners, sitting around a fire.
Each time the storyteller mentions a major character -- King Cymbeline, his daughter Imogen, her banished husband, Posthumus Leonatus -- that character stands and faces the audience, discarding a hooded robe and revealing the character's full costume underneath.
Noble's opening is clever not only because of its fable-like flavor, but also because this rarely produced but heavily plotted late Shakespearean romance can easily confuse theatergoers. There are at least three story lines -- Cymbeline's banishment of the son-in-law his daughter has married against his wishes and the obstacles the lovers overcome; the tale of the king's two kidnapped sons, who disappeared two decades ago; and Britain's war with Rome.
Noble and designer Anthony Ward further simplify the heavily edited text by opting for a clean, uncluttered look with a strong Japanese Kabuki influence. This sparse, stunning, exotic design also serves as a constant reminder that this particular Shakespearean fairy tale takes place long ago and far away.
But while the story of King Cymbeline may be foreign and unfamiliar, the play contains character types recognizable to any Shakespeare fan. As a king who antagonizes his loving daughter, noble Edward Petherbridge is a Lear figure from his flowing white wig to his hasty, misguided decrees. Joanna McCallum's fierce, ambitious queen -- the story's evil stepmother -- is reminiscent of Lady Macbeth, although the man she goads is not her husband, but her son, cloddish, preening Cloten, played by Guy Henry with a glorious blend of comic self-consciousness and malevolence.
As Cymbeline's independent-minded daughter, Imogen, spunky Joanne Pearce is the rightful heir of such cross-dressing Shakespearean comic heroines as Rosalind and Viola. And Imogen's husband, Posthumus (whose bland portrayal by Damian Lewis is one of the production's few uninspired performances), recalls Othello -- all too eager to accept the slander against his wife concocted by Paul Freeman's malicious, Iago-like character, Iachimo.
"Cymbeline" is a play with obvious good guys and bad guys, and, in yet another welcome clarification of the intricate plot, designer Ward's costumes emphasize these distinctions. Innocent Imogen wears white, nefarious Cloten wears black, and Posthumus, who succumbs to angry jealousy, wears green.
The set's primary feature is a huge white fabric panel that unfurls from ceiling to floor. Signifying everything from a palace wall to the entrance of a cave, this panel lends itself beautifully to the battle scenes, in which the Britons are represented by giant white flags and the Romans by giant red flags. A stark backdrop for these billowing flags, the panel can also become a screen for shadow-play skirmishes.
In 1623, when "Cymbeline" was published, it was categorized as a tragedy. Noble, however, emphasizes the comedy in this tale of wonder, which ends on a note of great joy. Indeed, the final scene is downright bubbly as the characters react with incredulous glee to the discovery that, after so many trials, they will live happily ever after.
The antithesis of tragedy, this RSC production is a buoyant, life-affirming celebration.
Where: Kennedy Center, off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow through Sunday, matinees at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Pub Date: 6/29/98