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How 'Cymbeline' saved Chicago Shakespeare
Now, the troupe is staging the neglected classic again

Publication: Chicago Tribune
Published: September 2, 2007
Client: Chicago Shakespeare Theater

By Sid Smith

Years ago, a Chicago director, while preparing a production of "Coriolanus," was repeatedly asked, "Who wrote that?"

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 times.

"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," Halperin adds.

"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 she's modern."

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.'"


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