By Sid Smith
Years ago, a Chicago director, while preparing a production
of "Coriolanus," was repeatedly asked, "Who
The question could easily arise again with that same
author's "Cymbeline," but at least in the
case of the production, the name of the dramatist is
built into that of the troupe: Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Even better, Chicago Shakespeare and artistic director
Barbara Gaines already have a proven track record and
special relationship with this neglected classic. Her
two earlier mountings won major awards and put Chicago
Shakespeare on the map.
In fact, "Cymbeline" ( currently in previews)
rescued the company -- now a fixture in its own impressive
theater at Navy Pier -- from looming extinction.
The organization was only 3 years old when, in 1989,
the night before "Cymbeline" rehearsals were
set to begin, Gaines met with her board of directors
to tell them the troupe was out of money.
"We had no funds to pay actors or crew members,"
she recalls. "Bear in mind, none of the board members
had ever heard of this play, I don't think. I'd never
seen it produced anywhere myself. But they opened their
checkbooks and saved the production."
"Cymbeline" opened and attracted sensational
reviews, sellout crowds, multiple extensions -- and
major funding organizations. Without hyperbole, Gaines
proclaims, " 'Cymbeline' saved our lives."
Gaines' early "Cymbeline" successes (the troupe
revived the drama in 1993) had a more subtle effect
on the mission to nurture a Chicago troupe devoted to
the Bard. It proved that all of Shakespeare's works
could be artistically and financially viable here, not
just the well-known standards. She claims no grand vision
on that score.
"I had no strategy," she says. "I can't
take credit. The simple truth is I chose my favorite
plays in those early years, and I loved 'Cymbeline.'"
"Cymbeline" dates from a later period in Shakespeare's
career, probably written around the same time as "The
Winter's Tale" and "The Tempest." Like
those two perplexing dramas, "Cymbeline" is
neither comic fish nor tragic fowl, often labeled a
romance instead and deemed the product of a more experimental
period in the playwright's writing.
Father and daughter: The story tells
of Cymbeline, an ancient king alienated from his daughter,
Imogen, who defies him and marries her beloved Posthumus,
instead of the king's preference, the oafish Cloten.
Cloten is the son of the Queen, the king's current wife
and Imogen's stepmother. Banished to exile, Posthumus
falls in with the villainous and deceptive Iachimo,
who bets Posthumus he can seduce Imogen.
Iachimo then tricks Posthumus into believing the worst
when, in reality, Imogen spurns his advances. The Queen,
meanwhile, plots all sorts of evil involving poison.
This may sound vaguely familiar. Cymbeline and Imogen
recall Lear and Cordelia, the Queen is often compared
with Lady Macbeth and devious Iachimo suggests Iago's
deception of Othello.
But the story also involves two missing princes thought
to be dead and hidden away in rusticity. Rambling and
epic, "Cymbeline" jumps all over the place,
from royal palace to rural cavern, and finishes with
a rebellious war against Augustus Caesar.
"There's definitely something cinematic about it,"
says Marilyn Halperin, Chicago Shakespeare's director
of education. "I don't know why it hasn't been
made into a huge film." More popular in the 19th
Century, when Imogen's purity appealed to Victorian
morals, the play sunk from favor, but its cinematic
variety may account for its modest comeback. Notes Halperin,
"We're used to the impossible, to extremes of emotions."
Breaking the rules: Shakespeare's
brash break with the rules of classical drama also bother
us a lot less than audiences in more Aristotelian conscious
"I feel like this play would have been the equivalent
of an off-off-Broadway experiment," Halperin says.
"Shakespeare was breaking every rule." On
that note, "People say it's more like a fairy tale,
and that its characters are more two-dimensional,"
"But the more time you study it, the more you see
the characters are nuanced," she continues. "And
the writing is exquisite. From the poetic sense, some
85 percent of it is in verse, compared with 'Hamlet'
and 'King Lear,' which are in the low 70s."
Halperin, Gaines and company dismiss the notion that
there are major and minor Shakespeare, anyway. "I
think Imogen is the female Hamlet," says Chaon
Cross, who plays the heroine, a role Helen Mirren once
played on PBS. "She's a full, intelligent character,
who rises above the others and shows what grace is.
She's smart, but also brooding and melancholy. I think
Some of the language of the play is especially difficult,
and Cymbeline himself is bereft of the great monologues
allotted Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear. But he's a character
who undergoes great change.
"All you read is how Cymbeline is the most inconsequential
of Shakespeare's title characters," admits Larry
Yando, who plays the king. "But thanks to all the
things that happen to him, by the end, he finds his
voice. His is a subtly written arc and journey."
For all its turpitude, "Cymbeline" offers
hope. Coming off directing "Troilus and Cressida"
last spring, with its grim vision of war, Gaines admits
she suffered a mild depression and returned to "Cymbeline"
partly for its benignity. As a "best hits"
catalog referencing so many other Shakespearean works,
it's also brightened by a happily-ever-after ending.
This time, as it were, Lear and Cordelia survive, Lady
Macbeth is foiled and Iago repents and even begs for
forgiveness. To upend the great line from "Romeo
and Juliet," all are not punished. (Cloten, it
should be noted, does literally lose his head in a graphic
foreshadowing of Grand Guignol.)
"After 'Troilus,' I needed an antidote, and the
characters in 'Cymbeline' begin in confusion, betrayal
and horror and learn from their mistakes," Gaines
says. "They grow, and they forgive."
Even so, because this is 18 years later and times are
different, Gaines confesses that this altogether new
production will be considerably darker. The promise
in the play isn't so much cockeyed optimism as wisdom
born of hard-won experience.
"It's no accident he wrote a play like this close
to the end of his life," she says. "It's as
if he's looking back and saying, 'This hurt, and this
hurt and this hurt, but I don't have time to hate anymore.
All I have left is life, and I choose it.'"