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Byline: Reed Johnson Theater Critic

A tad less than 400 years old, ``Cymbeline'' still is one of Shakespeare's most virginal works.

But maybe not for long. Mistrusted and dismissed for centuries as an experimental muddle, this pastiche of comedy, tragedy and pastoral romance has been getting a lusty workout lately from directors determined to treat it as a pre-postmodern blueprint.

In some recent productions, it's been Cuisinarted into a surreal froth, mixing historical periods helter-skelter (sometimes effectively, sometimes not) and turning the Act 5 masque of Jupiter and friends into an exercise in baroque camp, or worse.

Art Manke will have none of it. In Manke's moving, clear-headed production for A Noise Within, the acting is well-spoken and persuasively naturalistic (for the most part), the ambient score by Norman L. Berman has an insinuating Kurt Weill tenor, and the sets and props don't yell out, ``Wow, that Shakespeare sure was ahead of his time, huh?''

``Cymbeline's'' time is the first century A.D., when Augustus Caesar's legions are trying to squeeze financial tribute from the ancient Britons ruled by king Cymbeline (William Dennis Hunt). He's a cantankerous tyrant as initially played by Hunt, a spluttering King Lear Lite whose main beef isn't really with Rome but with his strong-minded daughter, Imogen (Gail Shapiro), who has insisted on marrying the commoner Posthumus (Michael Louden) rather than her buffoonish stepbrother Cloten (Richard Soto, projecting the hardened cheesiness of a waxworks Elvis; he's so dense he doesn't even notice his own double entendres).

Pale, red-haired Shapiro seems to have emerged from an Edward Burne-Jones' portrait of an Arthurian heroine. Her wrongly accused Imogen is a tough, spirited cookie, all right, but Shapiro lays on the quavering voice and scorned-woman heat a bit thickly, gives us too much Barbara Stanwyck and not enough Desdemona. Louden does a better job of introspecting in one of the Bard's least introspective texts, uncovering the wounded pride and genuine grief in Posthumus' ugly, misogynistic rants.

``Cymbeline's'' multiple plot points all seem to pop simultaneously, as if we were channel-surfing on Elizabethan Cablevision. The Machiavellian machinations of Cloten and his mother, the nameless Queen (a coolly contemptuous Carol Mayo Jenkins), are counterpointed by the Iago-like cunning of the Italian Iachimo (a suavely vicious Robertson Dean), who places an ill-advised wager with Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen.

A Noise Within emphasizes ``Cymbeline's'' contrast of youthful indiscretion, which is redeemable, with gray-haired malice, which is less so. When the pagan Cymbeline pronounces the play's Judeo-Christian coda of forgiveness and renewal (``Pardon's the word to all''), he seems to shed 10 years in 10 seconds. We half=magine those withered shrubs which set designer Michael C. Smith has installed in the five black monoliths that dominate the stage are going to burst into bloom.

Manke doesn't have anything quite that magical up his sleeve. But he has many other good ideas (the hokey slow-mo battle sequences not among them), such as the bathhouse setting in which Iachimo entices Posthumus, and the casting of Christopher Gottschalk and Darin Anthony as Cymbeline's estranged noble-savage sons. When these high-minded rubes kneel in humble sincerity and recite the ``Fear no more the heat o' the sun'' eulogy, the gaping Luckman Auditorium feels as hushed and cozy as a chapel.

Manke's ``Cymbeline,'' like Shakespeare's, finally is a victory of poetry over improbability. Though the plot is constantly threatening to crumble into absurdity, Shakespeare's language is always there to catch the falling pieces. Manke's direction, on this occasion, is there to make them whole.

The facts

--What: ``Cymbeline.''

--Where: A Noise Within at the Luckman Auditorium, California State University, Los Angeles.

--When: In repertory through June 18.

--Tickets: $26, $30; $22, $26 for students and seniors.

--Our rating: Three stars.




Gail Shapiro portrays strong-minded daughter Imogen in A Noise Within's ``Cymbeline.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:May 12, 2000

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