I probably shouldn't admit this, especially since my uncle is one of the most learned Shakespeare scholars in the country, but it scares me to see Shakespeare. I'm always afraid I'll find myself lost inside his language.
And I really shouldn't admit this, since before I became Merchandising Coordinator at Powell's, I ran the Drama section, which includes a whole aisle on Shakespeare, but I assumed Cymbeline was a woman's name. Turns out, it's the name of the king. Although the play is more about the king's daughter, Imogen. Although in Portland Center Stage's version, called Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline, the star is really the piano player.
I saw the show on Saturday night, and I was a bit on the fence about this new character, who plays the piano and provides commentary throughout the performance. He frames the show nicely - his entrance and exit give context and a poignancy - but he was basically explaining what was going on. On the other hand...he was basically explaining what was going on! In other words, it's kind of nice to sit there in the theater all proud of yourself for being decidedly not lost during an obscure Shakespeare play - but knowing you have a safety net just in case.
Part of why the piano player worked was the acting. You have to have a delicate touch to pull off a part like this, and Michael Keck has that delicacy and a storyteller's panache and a nice hint of humor.
All the acting in this production is top-notch - particularly, I thought, Kelley Curran who plays Imogen. She has a great, weighty voice and the ability to be completely convincing in moments of personal anguish even when Shakespeare's plot line is...well...pretty ridiculous.
And that's another thing about the role of the piano player. As he plays his music and ruminates in the moments between the action, he muses about story. "Who will win the kingdom?" he says. "That's what every story is about."* With his appearance in the play and with his musings, the piano player reminds us of the artifice of story - and makes the convolutions of this particular story easier to swallow.
One of the most interesting aspects of Portland Center Stage's version of Cymbeline is the fact that, though there are lots of characters in the original play, PCS gives us only six actors.The whole production is a leapfrog game of quick-change artistry and character juggling. In fact, at the end, the dressers were brought out for a very deserved bow.
Cymbeline is performed in the Ellen Bye Studio, which is a lovely, intimate space to see a play, and that made it extra surprising to see all the quick changes of the cast - particularly at the climax when most of the characters were on stage together. Actors would deliver their lines, then simply step out of the room, leaving it up to us to imagine them still there, while they leapt - poof - into a whole new character and stepped back in from some other entrance, to deliver the next line with perfect Shakespearean aplomb.
The show goes through April 8th.
*[OK, so I can't remember exactly what the line was, but I hope that's close enough.]