Originally published on July 12, 2019 by Terry Teachout in Wall Street Journal (‘Cymbeline’ Review: A Lucid Take on Tragic Fare).
At the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Davis McCallum directs one of the Bard’s less popular plays in a production that flits gracefully between comedy and touching drama.
‘Cymbeline” has never been one of Shakespeare’s popular plays, and it’s easy to see why. While its underlying subject matter is deadly serious, Shakespeare makes use of his full repertoire of plausibility-defying coincidences to tell a dark tale of jealousy and redemption, to the point where large chunks of “Cymbeline” can give the impression of resembling a comedy at least as much as a tragedy. Yet the awkwardness that arises from these incongruities seems to inspire actors and directors to give of their very best. I’ve reviewed three productions in the past 12 years—at Lincoln Center in 2007, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in 2008 and Shakespeare in the Park in 2015—and all of them were noteworthy. Now Hudson Valley is giving “Cymbeline” another go, this time in a version staged by Davis McCallum, the company’s artistic director since 2015, and once again the miracle has come to pass: Mr. McCallum and his youthful cast have given us a “Cymbeline” so clear and confident that you’ll wonder why it doesn’t get done as often as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
The operative word here is “clear.” It would take a whole column to disentangle the tightly knotted mistaken-identity complexities of “Cymbeline,” so I won’t even try. Recognizing how daunting they can be to first-time viewers, Mr. McCallum has turned the opening scene into a synopsis-like choral prologue in which the members of the cast explain what’s going to happen with storybook-like simplicity, thus making sure that the audience can keep up with the galloping plot. He then turns his actors loose to enact a modern-dress, scenery-free outdoor staging full of broadly comic touches (I’m still trying to puzzle out what all those actors were doing playing a round of golf). At the same time, though, he takes pains to ensure that the play’s underlying hurt and cruelty come through with identical clarity.
This is in part a function of smart casting, especially in the case of Princess Imogen (Alexandra Templer), the young wife who has displeased her father, King Cymbeline (Stephen Paul Johnson), by marrying Posthumus (Stephen Michael Spencer), a “poor but worthy gentleman” who loves her but is far too quick to distrust the integrity of her virtue. Ms. Templer is an open-faced, wonderfully likable performer who appears to have stepped out of a rom-com, and no matter how zany the antics that surround her become, the fact that she plays the character in “Cymbeline” to whom the dirty is done makes it impossible not to sympathize with her unjust treatment.
The shrewdness with which Mr. McCallum balances the two sides of “Cymbeline” is even more strikingly evident in the closing scenes, in which the improbable complications that drive the action of the play are resolved in such fast-moving, one-damn-thing-after-another succession that it’s impossible not to laugh at their mounting absurdity. Accordingly, Mr. McCallum stages them in the manner of a door-slamming farce, making each one pay off so solidly, even fearlessly, that you feel as though you’ve been given permission to laugh—loudly. But then you catch sight of Imogen weeping as she realizes at long last that everything is finally going to work out for her, and you’re forcibly reminded that the play’s climax is, to quote Mr. McCallum’s astute program note, a “miraculous act of grace—forgiveness that is given, but not deserved.” That’s the magic of this production: All at once the fundamental seriousness of the dramatic situation is reasserted, and you’re sent home not merely amused but moved.
In emphasizing Mr. McCallum’s direction, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s anything lacking in the acting. While this is, as I said earlier, a young-looking cast, it is also an accomplished one, and its members, Ms. Templer above all, are crucial to the production’s success. That said, Mr. McCallum is the kind of director whose unflashy, even self-effacing style can cause him to get less credit than he deserves. I’ve now seen nine of his productions, both under Hudson Valley’s spacious tent and at various off-Broadway venues. They’ve all been memorable—this one most of all.