A more soothing and spectacular setting for nearly any activity
than the University of California, Santa Cruz campus can hardly
be imagined—particularly for seeing a play set in ancient Britain
like Cymbeline. You mount a thousand-foot-high hill blanketed
with bucolic meadows, following a long sloping curve that looks
out over the town and the entire Monterey bay beyond, while the
ramparts of a forest-shrouded campus-cum-hilltown beckon above.
In late afternoon sea-fed mists are already filtering over the redwoods
as you enter the sylvan scene. A passel of druids could round the
corner at any time, to sweep you off to fairyland among them—or
maybe you just wish they would. Parliament Hill must have seemed
as mystical as this a couple millennia ago, you reckon, when great
London was still but one of the dark places of the earth, an outpost
of empire where Roman legions feared to tread.
Into this ideal setting director Danny Scheie has plunked down
a Cymbeline that, like an alarming number of Shakespeare
Santa Cruz productions, pretty much turns its back on it. No Pre-Raphaelite
visions of ancient Londinium for Scheie: instead, he turns for inspiration
to TV land in its swinging 60s incarnation—the land of Laugh
In, Bewitched, the Fab Four on Ed Sullivan, and an extra
helping of the Vietnam War with your nightly news. TV monitors frame
the stage to offer diverse perspectives on the action, and a sound
system worthy of a digital multiplex sends forth pop-culture reverberations
into the night.
What Scheie turns this technology to is a slapstick, farcical Cymbeline
replete with blackouts, double-takes, and characters poking
their heads through the curtains—not to mention a vaudevillian
ventriloquist and dummy to play Lords and Gentlemen 1 & 2 opposite
[L-R] Cloten (Liam Vincent) spars with Cornelius (Stephen Grenley).
Photo courtesy SSC.
All in all, this isn't a bad way to play Cymbeline, given
the absurdly convoluted plot that sounds an awful lot like an extended
joke when you try summarizing it to the unlessoned—as the woman
behind me did to her companion before the performance started. It
works well throughout, except for a slow patch just before intermission,
and reminds you that the Comedy of Errors was Shakespeare's
first version of Pericles, and by extension a prototype for
all romances to follow.
Scheie gets the British (with a capital B) theme of this play right—it
was written and first performed in the heyday of James I's failed
project to unite England and Scotland into a single kingdom—and
finds apt modern means to express in a hodgepodge of 20th century
equivalents: God Save the Queen blares in something like its Freddy
Mercury or Sex Pistols versions, on a stage draped in modern British
flags. What might to some scholarly playgoers seem sacrilegious
is actually quite apt, given that the main proponents of the British
ideal here are the two villains, the scabrous Cloten (played as
a whiny soccer hooligan by Liam Vincent, who acquits himself well
in a thankless role) and Cymbeline's stepqueen his conniving mother
(given a nice dose of mini-skirted pizzazz by the estimable Amy
Thone). Whatever James may have wanted, it's highly unlikely Shakespeare
and his English audience would have treated Union with anything
less than the ludicrous scorn we feel here.
This production also makes you realize that perhaps the only way
to play the more violent aspects of this play is as farce. Cloten's
ludicrously abhorrent fantasy of raping Imogen and gaining her father's
approval for it; his subsequent beheading by the King's long-ago-kidnapped
son Guiderius, who casually carries it back on-stage for all to
see; Imogen's reawakening beside Cloten's headless body, which she
mistakes for her Posthumus her husband's, crying out 'O Posthumus,
alas, where is thy head?': to play these actions as serious business
never works anyway, and just defeats the opportunity to get the
laugh they deserve.