Look what the cat dragged in. Just about everything -- and he, this cat, Bill Shakespeare, called it Cymbeline.
In the first place, Cymbeline isn't a girl, he's a he -- an ancient British king, and a rather disagreeable, tyrannical one at that, led around by his nose by an even more disagreeable person, his second wife, who's determined that her cloddish son, appropriately named Cloten, shall marry the king's daughter, fair Imogen, who just happens to be already married to her true love -- and his name, if you please, is Posthumus Leonatus (his mother died in childbirth, get it?).
Well, husband Posthumus is so undyingly true that the moment an Iago-type rat insinuates that he, the rat, has made it in bed with Imogen (he's lying, of course), our Posthumus gets all blue around the gills and, in scalding words that might have issued from the mouth of old King Lear, denounces Imogen, and all womankind, as filth, sexual filth, deserving to die. Which, dressed as a boy who calls himself Fidele, Imogen forthwith does, or so we and a few others are led to believe.
Oh yes, by the way: Imogen has two long-banished brothers, mountaineers in Wales. One is named Cadwal, but he calls himself Arviragus. The other is named Polydore, but he calls himself Guiderius. Guiderius cuts off the head of oafish, bullying Cloten -- whereupon, to mourn the death, as they think, of Fidele/Imogen, both brothers, in chaps and Stetsons, set to twanging away in a sweet, sad Sons of the Pioneers country-music rendition of one of the greatest poems in all Shakespeare, the tribute to mortality that begins: "Fear no more the heat o' the sun . . . "
Wait a minute! Cowboys, country music, Shakespeare? Yes, and Renaissance Italy, Hokusai Japan, Elizabethan England, and a bit of bow-tied ninnyville, all stirred together at Stratford-on-Avon -- and now in N.Y. -- by way of director Bartlett Sher's conjuration of a mishigas plot that, in the words of enthusiastic reviewer Paul Taylor in The Independent, "would have given Aristotle a nervous breakdown." Indeed, to 42-year-old, San Francisco-born Sher, Cymbeline "is a little bit like the Greatest Hits of all the Shakespeare history plays. But it's beautiful, gentle, bucolic, so beautiful you can't touch it; since September 11, even more so." The director has tackled Cymbeline before: four years ago, outdoors, at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise, and at Seattle's 480-seat Intiman Theatre (artistic director, Bart Sher), indoors. The show that has arrived at the Lortel on Christopher Street -- as opener of the 23rd season of Jeffrey Horowitz's Theatre for a New Audience -- world premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company's 150-seat The Other Place. It was the first American presentation of Shakespeare ever invited there by the RSC. "A strange journey," says the Cymbeline director -- "each location smaller and smaller, from the mountains of Idaho to a Seattle fishing village to the English countryside. The cowboys have been on gallop quite a distance." Git along, little Willie.
-- By Jerry Tallmer