Cymbeline is Shakespeare’s Gordian knot, and any director who can untangle it deserves to be made king. For starters, the action gets increasingly disparate as it seesaws between multiple stories of revenge, broken trust, and war in Britain, Italy, and Wales. There’s also a problem with the vanishing romantic hero: Posthumus flees to Rome in Act I and Shakespeare waits until Act V to bring him back for an abrupt triumph.
But the play is an emotional snarl too. For a romance, Cymbeline veers awfully close to tragedy, bringing tormented Imogen close to mental breakdown, decapitating the uncouth Cloten, and piling up battlefield corpses over a diplomatic trifle. Everything comes unraveled with amazing alacrity late in the fifth act—after Posthumus has a prophetic vision of family ghosts and hallucinates a thunder-throwing Jupiter. All parties frantically confess everything to the little-seen title character, restoring honor, reuniting lovers, and averting war. After centuries of scholarly argument, it’s still not clear whether Shakespeare left a great drama or an unwieldy one with gorgeous sections; as Harley Granville Barker once remarked, Cymbeline shows a dramatist “somewhat at odds with himself.”
On the whole, director Bartlett Sher does princely work with this knotty task for Theatre for a New Audience, embracing the play’s quirks while also shaping a cohesive narrative. With designer Christopher Akerlind, he color-codes the bouncy plot’s locales: red and black for Britain, a huge yellow shower curtain for Rome, a red horizon line for the Wild West (Shakespeare’s Wales, a mythic American frontier for Sher). Mixing periods indiscriminately, Sher and costume designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward fashion the outlaw Belarius and his posse as cowboys, give the lovers fairy-tale braids, turn the Romans into Renaissance courtiers, and put the Britons in boxy medieval smocks.
The great strength of Sher’s production lies in the company’s meticulous scene work and mastery of the language. It’s the type of solid Shakespeare we should see all the time but don’t; the actors use American, not British, inflections, know exactly what they’re saying, and make every word and beat understandable and resonant. Boris McGiver, with his arched eyebrows and goatee, is fantastic as the scheming Iachimo, particularly in his duplicitous scenes wooing sweet Imogen (Erica N. Tazel). McGiver turns him into the most interesting character in the play; he really seems to believe his own lies. Randy Danson plays a fabulously nasty Queen, bullying the court while feigning sociability. Peter Francis James makes music out of Pisanio’s ethical introspection, and Andrew Weems does a zesty comic turn as Cloten, who looks like a mixture of Kabuki and WWF, with his rooster breastplate and mangy hair.
The impeccable staging paves over most of the play’s bumps, but some of its essential weirdness gets lost as a result. Posthumus’s dream has to be a turning point, full of mysticism and not a little religious redemption, but here the vision is limited to one figure, and the two anonymous “storytellers” who speak the ghostly text render it bland rather than magical. Sher and company illuminate the narrative beautifully, but never conjure a compelling sense of crisis in the early scenes, nor redemption and otherworldliness in the late ones. The production recently played at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, and it’s the sort of Shakespeare in which the RSC specializes: clean and eminently clear, but without sharp edges.
Like Cymbeline, Tartuffe hinges on a wildly disproportionate final scene, but until then Molière’s perfectly ordered comedy runs like neoclassical clockwork. Director Jeff Cohen transports it to 1930s New York, puts the company in evening wear, and gives the characters a colorful array of local accents. As Orgon’s family tries to oust the scamming Tartuffe from the household, they shuffle around the tiny stage, moving in goofy clusters, pulling faces and making funny little noises. In front of walls painted with black-and-white pictures of furniture, they resemble Edward Gorey cartoons.
Screwball relies on actors who can pull off its verbal acrobatics: not everyone does here, but the best include Keith Reddin (as befuddled Orgon), Jen Ryan (as smart-mouthed Dorine), and Sarah K. Lippmann (as chirpy Marianne). Loverboy Valère (James Rana) has an amusing case of Locust Valley lockjaw, while in the title role Gerald Anthony maintains a presidential smirk, but doesn’t convey the con artist’s sex appeal or persuasive powers.
A few directorial insertions land with a thud—especially Cléante’s references to jihad and the Koran when telling Orgon to tone down his religious zeal. But the finale hits the bull’s-eye. The officer rescuing the family from ruin (Adam Hirsch) gets dispatched from the NYPD instead of Versailles, and the benevolent monarch who sends him is not King Louis but the Mayor. In a thick Brooklyn accent, the cop extols hizzoner’s virtues: “He’s a former prosecutor, as you know/Who made cleanin’ up the streets his motto.” Molière’s facetious spirit lives on as the family, refusing all reflection, calls for “Four more years!” and celebrates the future with abandon.