striking the proper chord

Review: Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline

Portland Center Stage’s masterful re-telling hits the plays emotional pressure points, even though the new piano-playing narrator occasionally strikes the wrong key

By Martin Patail February 27, 2012

Photo by Patrick Weishampel

For our preview of Chris Coleman’s production from our January issue, click here.

Chris Colemon’s Shakespeare’s Amazing Cymbeline succeeds in making a rather difficult play not merely accessible, but perhaps even meaningful again. The play, which debuted last month in the PCS’s Ellen Bye Studio in the Armory, is an intensely personal and intimate re-telling, eschewing the stately pageantry of so many modern Shakespeare productions and focusing instead on highlighting its emotional pressure points.

The play opens with the Pianist, an elderly black man who shuffles in under the glare of a single spotlight. Uncovering a dusty old piano, he plays a few somber notes and begins speaking, hinting ominously at trouble to come.

As his opening words fade out, the stage lights brighten on a square, stone slab, set directly in the middle of the Armory’s smaller, underground Ellen Bye studio. It is here that most of the action of the play takes place—beginning with the exile of Posthumus, a man of lowly birth who has married the king Cymbeline’s daughter without permission. Posthumus departs hastily for Rome, leaving his heartbroken wife Imogen to her father’s ire. From here the plot quickly spins off in multiple directions: the Queen’s machinations to get her feckless son installed on the thrown instead of Imogen; Posthumus’ wager against his distant wife’s faithfulness; Imogen’s eventual escape from the castle into Wales; a battle for the very freedom of the kingdom; Posthumus’ pivotal forgiveness of the man who sought to destroy him.

All the while, guiding us through this Shakespearean labyrinth is the Pianist. His music is appropriately minimal—melodic, sorrowful, and sometimes shockingly dissonant—but all too often the Pianist’s spoken explanations of the action onstage feel unnecessary. While some of his interjections are indeed moving—and provide occasional comic relief—it is often as if he is playing the role of a musical Cliff Notes—repeating the action onstage, but not adding to the drama itself. As the play reaches its climax, the screenwriter’s maxim, “Show, Don’t Tell,” frequently comes to mind.

Part of the problem is that the Pianist remains a faceless character from beginning to end. He frequently alludes to the Bard’s thoughts and frustrations (or perhaps they are Coleman’s)—but we learn nothing of the Pianist himself. His tone and dry wit hint at past trauma, but beyond that, his pain (and our sympathy) remains unscratched. Walking out of the theater, I found myself longing to know who the Pianist really was—and, most importantly, why Cymbeline’s story meant anything to him. Juxtaposition—as opposed to clever explication—may have been a more successful tact for the Pianist to take.

But like Posthumus, I find it easy to forgive these sins. The cast and costuming are superb. The staging is exquisitely restrained. And who can forget the particularly realistic looking severed head toward the end of the play. On the whole, Coleman’s resurrection of Cymbeline is a masterful work and one that deserves much of the praise it has garnered so far.

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