AT THE beginning of Shakespeare’s lesser-performed romance Cymbeline, a lower-
class lover, Posthumus, is banished for marrying the king’s daughter without permission. The exile sets off a particularly complex Shakespearean web of plot points: political intrigue, mistaken identity, poison, accusations of adultery, murder, and, finally, a bloody battle for the freedom of the kingdom.
But at the climax of Cymbeline, there is an unlikely surprise. Posthumus returns from exile to the king’s court not to wreak vengeance for his suffering but to forgive the man who is its cause: Kneel not to me / The power that I have on you is to spare you / The malice towards you to forgive you: live / And deal with others better.
For Chris Coleman, whose original adaptation premieres this month in Portland Center Stage’s intimate, underground Ellyn Bye Studio, this moment of uncharacteristic absolution is not only the key to understanding the play, but to understanding Shakespeare himself.
“He is an old man looking back at the scars of his own life with a deep sense of regret,” explains Coleman, noting that Cymbeline was among the last of Shakespeare’s 38 plays. “At the end he makes peace, and it seems like somebody who’s tired of fighting, tired of the machinations of the court, and who just wants peace in his personal relationships and political world.”
At the center of Coleman’s adaptation is a new character, the Pianist, an elderly narrator whose monologues cast a melancholy, even rueful pall over a play that is often classified as comedy or romance. You ask, ‘why this tale? Why this Princess? This arrogant outcast?’ the Pianist interjects in the middle of the play. A glimmer of betrayal / A hint of mistrust / Something about screwing up / What was most precious in your own story. Set to the unstructured, dynamic jazz-style of composer Randy Tico, these ruminations become stirring and occasionally haunting.
“The Pianist took on his own voice,” says Coleman, PCS’s artistic director since 2000. “You don’t get details of his biography, but you get hints of why he is obsessed with this story, the story of betrayal, misplaced loyalities, and obsession with power. So in a sense the play is the fantasy of this old piano player who carries us through it and helps it land for us emotionally.”
“It’s bittersweet, evocative,” says Tico, who has worked with Coleman on three other recent productions, describing the live score as a melting pot between Gershwin, classical, and jazz. “It could be played very vibrato. It can speed up or slow down. It’s uplifting, but it moves in unexpected ways. It’s more like watching clouds change than knowing where things are going.”
While PCS has performed adaptations of Shakespeare before, Cymbeline heralds a new maturity in the company, which began in 1988 as an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. “Before I got here,” Coleman says, “Shakespeare, the classics, were definitely what people expected to see. I moved away from that consciously because we needed to lean forward, we needed to connect with what Portland was becoming.”
Portland theatergoers have evolved along with PCS. For the production, PCS earned a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Shakespeare for a New Generation” program, which aims to introduce middle and high school students to the Bard’s masterpieces in engaging ways.
Though Coleman is a stickler for authentic dialects, he hopes that performing in the cozy Ellyn Bye Studio will deepen the experience beyond mere costume pageantry for Shakespeare novices and adept alike. With seats arranged in a diamond around a central stage, the cast will move around freely, weaving in front of, between, and behind members of the audience. Adding to that intimacy is Coleman’s casting of only six actors to play all 22 roles.