Shakespeare is an acquired taste. Being an English major, I can speak to that notion having endured scores of courses about or relating to the man. In high school I remember sitting in my room reading plays like Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, having no idea what had transpired in all those pages I had just read and eventually resorting my holy grail of Shakespeare: No Fear Shakespeare. Yea, (read that as you like it) the Bard and I didn’t have a promising start. I resented the people who “got it,” the ones who would adopt ridiculous medieval accents while they uttered words like “murtherer” while reading aloud in class and imagined that if we were really in those times they’d be the person yelling on a soapbox and I’d be the one throwing rotten vegetables at them.
But this was before I had professors who were passionate about the work and presented Shakespeare in a compelling and relevant way. Yea, with the right guidance it seemed like within a fortnight I found myself on the inside of this special club. The references were everywhere – from ducats to one of my favorite lines in Brooklyn Nine-Nine where Peralta says, “What the hell’s Othello? I was calling you the parrot from Aladdin.” The transformative powers were real, y’all. Do you want to join the club? We have the perfect foray for you. This Friday, Marin Shakespeare Company’s season begins with Cymbeline and we were fortunate enough to chat with the play’s dramaturg Mary Ann Koory about what’s in store for you.
MM: Since readers are likely not as well acquainted with Cymbeline as they with Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, would you be able to tell us a little bit about makes this play special?
MAK: Cymbeline poses category problems. The editors of the First Folio in 1623 listed it under “Tragedies,” which, when you consider that the play ends with:
• joyful reunions between husband and wife and father and daughter;
• the return of two sons and heirs to their father and king;
• the deaths of an evil stepmother and her would-be rapist son; and
• the achievement of no less than world peace; seems to be a mistake.
I personally think the printer, a practical fellow undeterred by the need for theoretical consistency, suggested sticking it in at the end, after Antony and Cleopatra, for convenience’s sake, and that’s how it got into the Table of Contents as the last tragedy. See TOC from the First Folio attached.
In the 20th century, for the most part, scholars settled on calling Cymbeline “experimental.” This is code for “plays our genius invented that we can’t describe, don't understand and more or less disapprove of.”
In fact, “experimental,” meaning Shakespeare was willing to exploit the dramaturgical possibilities of a new theater, is accurate. Cymbeline was developed in around 1609 for the newly acquired indoor Blackfriars Theatre in London, across the Thames from the much larger, outdoor Globe Theatre. The indoor setting was acoustically, visually and physically more intimate. Shakespeare got to use special effects on stage for the first time, which meant magic (you’ll see a goddess appear in this production) and music. Director Robert Currier has taken the hint from Shakespeare’s musical innovations — one of Shakespeare's most beautiful songs is from Cymbeline, “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun,” and has included several new original songs written by long time Marin Shakespeare Company Sound Designer and composer, Billie Cox. The whole feel of this play is musical fairy tale romance — it strikes me, in fact, as similar to Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It even has an evil stepmother (played by the wonderfully evil Lee Fitzpatrick).
MM: There’s been endless adaptations of Shakespeare’s work — what do you try to get the actors to convey as a dramaturg?
MAK: A dramaturg, especially one like me who’s an expert on text and not on acting, works with the director (not the actors). The director makes all the creative choices. I help with historical context and textual decisions and I help talk through themes and emotions. Robert Currier is the one with vision. I more or less polish the microscope, if that makes sense.
I think he’s hoping the actors bring out the sense of how the gods can seem to play with human beings, as they fall in love, and try to conquer the world — humans think they are in charge but then coincidence and mistakes and sudden inexplicable affection plays havoc. For the gods and certainly for us in the audience, the havoc that happens from the collision of humans and fate is highly entertaining, at least in Cymbeline.
MM: Do you have any tips for students or people with an interest in Shakespeare who have issues following along when they’re reading his works?
MAK: I think the single most helpful thing to do while reading Shakespeare’s plays is to listen to a good audio performance simultaneously, like the BBC productions of the plays, so that as your reading you get the tone and the emotions, even if you don’t understand every word (and most people don’t understand every word, anyway). Then, after you’ve read and listened, it will much more meaningful to watch a performance or see a film version — because then you are bringing your own interpretation to the experience. I also suggest reading my blog on the Marin Shakespeare website. Coming soon.
MM: I heard about this full moon on opening night, could you tell us more about that?
MAK: Full moon rises stage left, up and over the stage, shining directly on the audience as the play is performed. It’s absolutely gorgeous. And no extra charge.
If You Go:
When: Friday, June 26 at 8pm
Where: Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University