Shakespeare by the Sea: Good Guys, Bad Guys, and Lots of Swordplay
Shakespeare by the Sea opens with “Cymbeline,” followed by “Othello”
Every summer, the Shakespeare by the Sea acting troupe loads up the wagons, saddles the horses, and takes a pair of the Bard’s plays on the road, touring for six weeks throughout the Southland. The company is embarking on its 19th season, this time with “Cymbeline” and “Othello,” and it all begins tonight, June 16, with an 8 p.m. performance of “Cymbeline” at Point Fermin Park in San Pedro.
While “Othello” isn’t so uncommon (and on the operatic stage Plácido Domingo has often sung Verdi’s adaptation at the Music Center), the same can’t be said about “Cymbeline,” one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, and one which Shakespeare by the Sea has never attempted until now. For those who want to ask why, just read through the synopsis and then tell me with a straight face that it all makes sense and is easy to follow.
Cylan Brown, who’s directing “Cymbeline,” attempts to shed some light on the story, with a little help from Stacy Snider as King Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen, and Bryson (BJ) Allman as Cloten, the Queen’s son.
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Long and confusing?
“Rarely is ‘Cymbeline’ ever done,” Brown says. “It’s a play about a woman (Imogen) who is accused of cheating on her husband (Posthumus), and her husband tries to have her murdered. Due to all sorts of other circumstances that doesn’t actually happen. She lives, they’re reunited at the end, and everything ends happily. Which is kind of like the same but opposite of what happens in ‘Othello,’ where Desdemona is accused of cheating on Othello and he falls for it, and then he actually does kill her at the end.”
Fleshed out, “Cymbeline” is Shakespeare’s third longest play (behind “Hamlet” and “Coriolanus”), clocking in at three hours, if not more. Brown and company have shaved off some of the secondary and tertiary plotlines, those ornamental tentacles that seem to be a staple of so much Elizabethan theater.
Anyway, the turmoil at the head of the story begins when the princess, Imogen, marries a man from a lower station after having been promised in wedlock by Cymbeline, her father, to his new Queen’s son, Cloten. That’s a bad move in presidential circles, and Posthumus is banished. Imogen soon goes off on a long journey of her own, and this will include waking up beside a headless body that she assumes is her husband, since the corpse is dressed in her husband’s clothes. There’s also a battle going on between the Brits and the Romans, with new characters emerging (e.g., Guiderius and Arviragus, Cymbeline’s sons, who disappeared 20 years earlier) and old characters changing sides under one pretext or another. Perhaps scorecards were handed out at the Globe when the play first premiered.
“In the midst of all this, which is already pretty confusing,” Brown says, “there’s a whole bunch of other things.”
“Like Cy has said on a few occasions, it’s kind of a highlight reel of Shakespeare’s shows and characters,” Snider says. “You get all the things that really worked throughout his career.”
“Like in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ there’s a poison that you think kills you,” Brown says, “but it actually just makes you fall asleep for a day. And just like in ‘As You Like It” there is a girl who dresses up as a boy. So there’s many old Shakespeare tropes that keep happening.”
When told that his description of “Cymbeline” makes it sound as if it’s both a tragedy and a comedy, Brown replies, “How interesting that you would touch on that! Initially it was called ‘The Tragedy of Cymbeline,’ but there are just these moments that are so funny. And it ends happily, so you can’t call it a tragedy, you can’t call it a comedy; you’ve got to find that weird in between, and so a lot of people call it a romance. It’s got a little bit of everything, and finding the balance between the two has been a fun challenge.”
Part of that challenge has been to snip off the extraneous parts, and to bring in the play at about one hour, forty-five minutes.
“The story still moves along and there’s still a lot of action,” Brown says. “Because not a lot of people know the play I feel that we can get away with it.”
“I had read most of Shakespeare’s plays, but ‘Cymbeline’ goes under the radar for a lot of people,” says Stacy Snider. “This and ‘Troilus and Cressida’ are a few that people don’t know as well, so it was great to read it and to sink my teeth into it.”
In fact, the public’s unfamiliarity with the play, and the actors’ unfamiliarity with it as well, allowed the company to explore their roles, and to not feel beholden to how they may have been played before, by other actors.
“In the last century,” Brown says, “Imogen was a really hot character and all the ingenues wanted to play her: Forget Juliet, I gotta be Imogen! And it’s interesting because she can go a couple of different ways. She can be really weepy and sad, [but] something that Stacy and I have been working on is making her a stronger, more deliberate character.”
“A lot of female characters get played as damsels in distress and they have to be rescued,” Snider adds, “and that’s not something Imogen does. She’s strong and she’s going to go after what she needs to take care of. People try to pull the wool over her and she can see through it. So I enjoy playing her stronger, for sure, [but] there are those moments where she is a damsel in distress and there are those moments where she is torn up, but she always seems to find the strength or the anger as well. You don’t expect that from a princess, but she’s got the weight of the kingdom on her shoulders.”
As with the King’s daughter, so with the Queen’s son.
“I think Cloten can go a bunch of different ways,” Brown says, which Allman seconds: “There are so many options with this guy.”
Asked to define his character, Allman nails it: “The Renaissance manifestation of the ‘80s villain. Son of the Queen, madly in love with the King’s daughter, his stepsister.” But Imogen’s married to someone else, Brown remarks. “Not just someone else,” Allman continues, “someone who isn’t the son of a queen, so who knows what she was thinking?” Cloten, he says, sort of belongs on top of a mountain surrounded by goons with a sweater tied around his neck, pushing the underdogs down into the snow, [with] really severe delusions of grandeur. He thinks he’s a monster with a sword, and is very much not at all. But he’s got a couple of lords who serve him and one of them is a total yes-man; plus he’s got a very doting mother. His ego is fed from all angles.”
“What’s cool about his character,” says Brown, “is that he’s the source of a lot of comedy in the show.”
“He’s a rare creature,” Allman concurs; “he’s the comedic villain. Usually the villain is way more antagonistic to the story, an opposing force. But in this one he’s just a force that shows up and gets laughed at.”
Not at all like Iago in “Othello,” says Brown. Bad to the bone.
As Allman sees it, Cloten has confidence but lacks capability.
“He thinks he can do anything, and he’s wrong about that 100 percent of the time. He doesn’t present an obstacle, he just kind of is one. He doesn’t oppose Imogen in any way, he just inconveniences her. And she kind of embarrasses him and emasculates him and continues about her business.”
Cloten, says Brown, “picks fights with people that he has no business fighting with,” and sure enough their skills outmaneuver his confidence. As Allman notes, “His mentality is, I can do no wrong; and the reality is he can do no right.”
The end result? That’s his headless body that Imogen sees when she wakes up.
So, is Cloten a tragic, flawed character, or a buffoon? Well, Brown and Allman tried several variations during rehearsals, and finally, in Brown’s words, “we split the difference.”
Again, it was a character they could develop because very few of us have preconceptions of how Cloten should be played.
“You do ‘Hamlet,’” says Brown, “and everyone thinks oh you’re doing ‘Hamlet’ you gotta do like ‘Alas poor Yorick,’ you gotta do that scene. Or you do ‘Macbeth’ and everyone thinks they know what a Macbeth is. One of the benefits of doing this show is we all kind of get a chance to explore these characters and find them on our own. So it’s been very freeing and very good for all of us.”
Opinions and points of view are forever evolving, or regressing, if you will, and what may have proved satisfactory to an audience in one era may seem like a cop-out in another. Now, if you’re a purist, you may not like what you’re about to read.
“In Shakespeare’s original, final scene,” Brown says, referring to “Cymbeline,” “there’re a bunch of people coming forth with their confessions. Everyone’s done something wrong in the play, and then someone comes forth and they’re like, I never loved you, sorry, sorry, sorry. Oh, I lied about this, sorry, sorry, sorry.”
One of the character with some explaining to do is Posthumus, who conspired to have Imogen killed because he believed she’d been unfaithful.
“In the original he’s like, Oh, I’m so sorry I did that,” Brown continues, “and Imogen’s like, Oh, it’s okay, I forgive you; you’re a guy, I’m a girl, whatever.”
“Boys will be boys,” Snider quips.
“In the Victorian era,” Brown explains, “George Bernard Shaw actually rewrote an ending for the play which is a little more modern and forward thinking, where Imogen is like, You did what?! And I took his ending and integrated it into Shakespeare’s original. So it is a little bit of a different ending, and still a happy ending, but he’s not let off the hook so easily and we don’t just think, oh, she was a pushover. Even at the very end she has moments of extreme strength and moxie that a lot of Shakespeare heroines wouldn’t have.”
Cymbeline opens tonight with 8 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in Point Fermin Park, 807 Paseo del Mar, San Pedro. It’ll continue with shows at the cliffside venue on June 30, July 2 and 8, before heading up to Hesse Park in Rancho Palos Verdes on July 10, Valley Park in Hermosa Beach on July 14, and then numerous other locations ranging from Woodland Hills to Pasadena and Aliso Viejo. The closing performance is on August 20, back at Point Fermin. Opening June 23, Othello will be performed in tandem with Cymbeline, often on alternative nights. Free; donations appreciated. For details and dates, call (310) 217-7596 or go to shakespearebythesea.org/locations.