Monday, August 31, 2015


Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of RIPPLE OF HOPE, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Karen Sklaire.
DC Theatre Scene

The White Box
440 Lafayette Stree, NYC

Friday, August 28, 2015

51. Review: MERCURY FUR (seen August 26, 2015)

"The Wrong Kind of Goosebumps"
Stars range from 5-1.

There are at least four principal reasons I felt discomfited when I saw British playwright Philip Ridley’s controversial MERCURY FUR. One was the lack of a program (my guest and I must have been overlooked by whoever was handing them out when the play ended). Another was the powerful blasting of the air conditioning, despite it being a mild evening, causing bare-armed and shorts-wearing spectators to feel more goosebumps from the ice box conditions than from anything the would-be chiller of a play could produce. 
Jack DiFalco, Zane Pais. Photo: Monique Carboni.
 A third was having to sit for over two uninterrupted hours on a hard wooden kitchen chair. That’s related to the strikingly derelict ambience of Derek McLane’s immersive setting: the auditorium is divided into two sets of bleachers facing an acting area looking like the scuzziest abandoned apartment imaginable, with spectators also viewing from overhead galleries; the first couple of bleacher rows include a random assortment of discarded kitchen chairs, sofas, loveseats, and cushioned arm chairs. Since the audience is warned that it will be difficult to leave the intermissionless play in mid-performance, it’s given small maps indicating the nearest emergency exits. And then there’s number four, the play itself, from which my guest said he’d have departed early had the circumstances for doing so been less complex.
From left: Jack DiFalco, Zane Pais, Tony Revolori. Photo: Monique Carboni.
MERCURY FUR, directed at a high decibel and energy level by Scott Elliott, was originally produced in London in 2005 with environment and accents appropriate to that city. London critics and audiences were sharply divided. The current version, set in a boarded up, dilapidated, graffiti-covered New York public housing apartment, has proved similarly controversial. It all takes place in a vaguely defined dystopian future, only a few years down the line. Susan Hilferty’s contemporary costumes range from grunge to rocker to preppy. For some unexplained reason, a TV flickers during the preshow although when the play begins total darkness descends, since the place has no electricity; lighting designer Jeff Croiter does exceptional work under these limitations. However much the apartment looks disgustingly decrepit, the characters (apart from one) seem to live elsewhere in conventional homes.
Paul Iacono, Zane Pais. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Society has gone to anarchy and ruin, but the script is murky about the circumstances, referring only to riots, a giant sandstorm, and an infestation of butterflies. Most of the characters, anxious, desperate, and profane, have vague recollections of their pasts, largely because of those flying insects, the eating of which provides memory dulling, addictive, and violent fantasies that differ depending on which color butterfly (two-tone blue, red with silver stripes, etc.) is ingested. But Wall Street still operates, and people smoke, carry cell phones, drive cars, and use video cameras. Language has gone down a notch, however, and, despite Mr. Ridley’s clearly apparent talent for juicy verbiage, the nonstop barrage of filthy words, vile ethnic slurs, and violent imagery his characters spout grows tiresome and boring.  
From left: Zane Pais, Jack DiFalco, Bryan Fong, Tony Revolori. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Since so few people seem to read anymore, the angry and controlling 19-year-old Elliott (Zane Pais), who uses words like “alacrity” and “abattoir,” is the only one present who does, and is thus considered a fount of knowledge; he’s also the only one who refuses to eat butterflies, although he makes his living selling them from an ice cream truck. For his more intellectually challenged younger brother, the 16-year-old Darren (Jack DiFalco), history is a strange mashup of wild inaccuracies, such as his belief that Marilyn Monroe was John F. Kennedy’s wife, which led to Kennedy’s declaring war on Germany when Hitler showed an undue fondness for her. 
From left: Sea McHale, Jack DiFalco, Zane Pais, Emily Cass McDonnell. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The first to arrive are the hoody-wearing, pistol-packing Elliot and the crew-cut Darren, whose love-hate relationship is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s George and Lenny; they quickly set about removing the boards from the windows and straightening up the detritus for a party they’re arranging to satisfy the bloodthirsty tastes of the Party Guest (Peter Mark Kendall); this guy, a Wall Street sadist dressed in a red sport shirt and light-colored slacks, wants to pay big bucks for the thrill of using a meat hook to execute someone in an imaginary Vietnamese jungle while dressed in camo. The clueless Naz (Tony Revolori), a 15-year-old who moved into another empty apartment shortly before the play begins, joins the brothers and befriends the needful Darren, even allowing him to share ownership of his pistol, which he carefully deposits in a desk drawer. (If you remember Chekhov’s dictum about plays that introduce guns in the first act, raise your hand!)
From left: Jack DiFalco, Tony Revolori, Peter Mark Kendall, Sea McHale, Zane Pais. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Arriving to film the party is another armed dude (a word spoken at least 50 times), 21-year-old Spinx (Sea McHale), who looks nearly albino with his buzz-cut and eyebrows dyed platinum, his tough guy’s black leather getup and bling sending off a Billy Idol vibe. In his care is the Duchess (Emily Cass McDonell), a blind, epileptic woman of 38 in dark glasses who calls Spinx “Papa,” and who the others treat as royalty. Her fuzzy memory of her pre-apocalyptic middle-class life conflates her with Maria von Trapp from THE SOUND OF MUSIC, although she looks more like Eva Peron in EVITA; who she really is will gradually be revealed (even though she seems too young for it), but it’s no big deal since she’s such an opaque presence. There’s also Lola (Paul Iacono), a gender bending 19-year-old man involved with Elliott, there to help with the preparations. The object of everyone’s attention is the Party Piece (Bradley Fong), a 10-year-old boy whose horrific destiny is to be realized while dressed in a gold Elvis Presley suit.
Jack DiFalco. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Much as this all sounds potentially fascinating as a piece of frightening Grand Guignolish grotesquery, the play is actually rather tame. The actors race through their paces and shout angrily at each other with enthusiastic ferocity, but only rarely does anyone crack the surface of believability; much of the time they seem engaged in the kind of horror movie kids with cameras like to make. Several, especially the one-note Mr. Pais, occasionally gabble so rapidly their words can barely be understood. For all its ostensible gore and bloodiness, the play’s most ghastly scene is no more frightening than any similar theatrical bloodfest; the proximity of actors playacting at slaughter can never substitute for the dread of the unseen. The first time I saw an actor covered in blood was Jason Robards, Jr.’s performance in Hellman’s TOYS IN THE ATTIC in 1960. It registered strongly enough for me to recall it 55 years later. Since then, blood-spattered actors, even with fake intestines spewing out of their guts, have outworn their welcome.

For three quarters of the time, MERCURY FUR (whose enigmatic title goes unexplained) has an undramatic, even desultory atmosphere, interesting only for the bits of dystopian trivia its characters dispense. Things don’t really become interesting until the Wall Street creep appears, about a half hour before the final curtain. By then, many will not really care that much; the material grows increasingly familiar, as seen in many movies, not least of them A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. And while one can find moral issues to justify what Mr. Ridley puts before us, his play seems primarily concerned with shocking the audience by its attention to physical and verbal outrageousness. Personally, I find watching the Republican presidential campaign far more shocking. Therein lie the real goosebumps.

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Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through September 27

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

50. Review: SENSE OF AN ENDING (seen August 25, 2015)

"Truth or Consequences in Rwanda"
Stars range from 5-1.

The world has witnessed many horrendous events over the past thirty years, among the most appalling being the genocide carried out in Rwanda by the Hutu people against the Tutsi in 1994, when over 800,000 were slaughtered. The Rwandan horror, indelibly captured in the 2004 movie, HOTEL RWANDA, starring Don Cheadle, is the subject of Ken Urban’s play SENSE OF AN ENDING, now in the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters, after premiering at London’s Theatre 503 earlier this year. Unlike HOTEL RWANDA, which documents the experiences of an actual person, SENSE OF AN ENDING declares that it “is based on the facts of the genocide,” but “is a work of fiction.” In fact, however, the essence of the plot is loosely derived from the Belgian trial of the nuns of Sovu, held in 2001. Since the playwright has other fish to fry, his claim that the work is fiction only serves to diminish its dramatic power.
Mr. Urban’s play, while set against the backdrop of the genocide, some of whose atrocities it describes, is more concerned with moral issues of religious faith, truth and falsity, and forgiveness, than historical documentation, no matter how closely what is discussed approximates its inspiration. Set in the Rwandan city of Kigali over Easter weekend in 1999 it tells the story of two Hutu Benedictine nuns, Sister Justina (Heather Alicia Simms), a.k.a. Bernadette, older and authoritative, and the youthful, less worldly Sister Alice (Dana Marie Ingraham), a.k.a. Consolata. Both are in prison awaiting transport to Belgium where they’ll be tried for “crimes against humanity”; allegedly, they participated in a massacre of Tutsis, who were burned to death while seeking refuge at the nuns’ church shortly after President Habyarimana, a Hutu, died in a plane crash. Although those responsible have never been determined, the leader’s death was considered by the Hutu an assassination by Tutsi opposed to a peace accord with the Rwandan Patriotic Force (RPF). 
A New York Times journalist, Charles (Joshua David Robinson), who identifies himself as African American, is there to investigate the nuns’ complicity in the killings. The story is important to him not merely for its news value but because he, a former rising star, was the subject of a plagiarism scandal (if you blink you’ll miss this) and wishes to write an account that will restore his credibility and status. Leaning toward belief in the nuns’ innocence, who might simply be scapegoats of the RPF, he finds discovering the truth to be no simple matter; should he trust them or the RPF? The other principals are Paul (Hubert Point-Du Jour), a uniformed Tutsi corporal in the RPF, who serves as Paul’s cynical guide and minder, and Dusabi (Danyon Davis), the sole victim of the church massacre to survive, whose existence has only now come into view, making him a potentially explosive witness.

Mr. Urban provides enough political background to help us engage with the story, but he’s really more concerned with the responses of his characters to what happened in the church. Charles’s inquiries, which are seamlessly integrated into the episodic script as it keeps shifting from scene to scene over a period of five days, often have him exploring his own reactions via the small recording device he uses when interviewing his subjects. His solo scenes with the recorder resemble soliloquies, except that instead of speaking to himself he’s relating his thoughts to a late colleague who served as his journalism mentor. Surprisingly, his ultimate realization of what transpired comes to him in a vision during a muddy, surrealistic flashback scene toward the end.
SENSE OF AN ENDING is performed within David L. Arsenault’s evocative three-quarters round setting of four benches and a backdrop of two huge, rusting metal doors on each of which is emblazoned a faded cross. Hanging overhead are dozens of clothing items, suggesting the many lost lives. Travis McHale’s lighting does wonders in eliciting the play’s shifting moods. The action jumps multiple times to different locales, but the set remains unchanged, the doors representing those leading into the church. Inside, we’re told, the bodies of the murdered Tutsis have been allowed to remain just as they were when they were killed. I’ve no idea about whether anything like this existed in Rwanda five years after the horrors, but it’s hard to accept the presence of hundreds of decomposing bodies allowed to remain in situ for so long in central east Africa.
SENSE OF AN ENDING is not an exposé or questioning of previously unknown or disputed historical events; we don’t learn anything new about the particular issues that provoked the enmity between the Hutus and the Tutsis, although we see that moral ambiguities exist on both sides of the divide. The case of the nuns is to be decided in a foreign court, not in a New York Times article, so Charles’s investigation, which essentially suggests that he’s setting himself up as judge and jury, might be considered inappropriate, but the issue never arises; since the case itself is a manufactured one, the play, for all the magnetism inherent in its subject matter, fails to stick. The fact that the sisters aren't represented by a lawyer makes the legality of their situation even vaguer. 
Director Adam Fitzgerald squeezes everything possible out of the small space’s limitations, and his actors are all solid, if unexceptional. Mr. Urban deserves kudos for attempting a play on such a significant topic, even if the play gains more of its power from its subject matter than the way that subject matter is expressed. 


59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street,
Through September 6

Monday, August 24, 2015

49. Review: LOVE & MONEY (seen August 22, 2015)

"A Lesson for the One Percent"
Stars range from 5-1.

Horton Foote is no longer with us, and the 87-year-old Edward Albee hasn’t produced anything new in several years. If continued productivity at an advanced age is a criterion, the 84-year-old A.R. Gurney is a prime candidate for being dubbed dean of American playwrights. Since every season lately seems to offer at least one old or new Gurney effort, Off Broadway audiences can now visit his newest, LOVE & MONEY, while Broadway will soon enjoy a revival of his 1995 comedy SYLVIA.

LOVE & MONEY, a slight, formulaic comedy, briskly staged by Mark Lamos, has arrived at the Signature after a three-week run at the Westport County Playhouse (where it had its world premiere, despite ads giving the New York production that honor). However, in its conventional plotting, cardboard characters, and overall sense of artificiality, it too closely takes the advice of a Cole Porter song performed midway through, “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please.” Fortunately, it clocks in at only an intermissionless hour and 15 minutes, which is just about as much as the old fashioned material can stand.
Mr. Gurney, known for his amusingly acerbic dissections of East Coast WASP society, returns to that satirical territory in LOVE & MONEY, set in a beautifully appointed Upper East Side brownstone library cum drawing room (designed by Michael Yeargan and lit by Stephen Strawbridge). The place belongs to the elegant, superrich, liberally-inclined, "self-hating WASP" dowager Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman), and all its expensive contents are tagged for sale. Cornelia, as she insists on being called, has decided to move into an exclusive retirement community (she calls it a “nursing home”) and give her many millions away to children’s charities; her own children are dead and her disappointing grandchildren will receive just enough to live on comfortably, since she fears the dangers of unbridled wealth.
An uptight young lawyer, Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik), whose Latvian heritage becomes an unfunny running joke, is intent on advising Cornelia about how best to handle her financial legacy. When Walker “Scott” Williams (Gabriel Brown), a well-spoken, WASPishly well-dressed (by Men's Wearhouse), young African American arrives from Buffalo (Cornelia’s home town, and also Gurney’s) claiming to be the son of Cornelia’s late daughter, Harvey determines to reveal him as a gold-digging con artist. (The dialogue actually acknowledges the premise’s resemblance to John Guare’s SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION.) Cornelia, however, seems taken with her newfound grandson, whose affection for and knowledge of F. Scott Fitzgerald (thus his nickname) and Porter (whom Cornelia calls “the poet of my people”), appears to have plucked her golden heartstrings. Of course, a bell goes off instantly in every playgoer’s head clanging, “DNA! DNA!” but it’s not till late in the play, when things have more or less been resolved, that the idea even enters the conversation.
Filling out the cast of stock characters are Agnes Munger (Pamela Dunlap), Cornelia’s sassy Irish housekeeper and friend of many years, and Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim), a Julliard acting student who hopes Cornelia will provide the school with her Porter-programmed player piano, at which she sings “Night and Day” and the aforementioned “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please.” Surely, there’s no need to mention the romantic seed planted between her and the young man who’s shuffled in from Buffalo.
Cornelia is a sprightly (I’d say “spry” but Scott already does that, with diminishing returns) dame, her white hair carefully coiffed, her affinity for fox trotting to Porter undimmed, and her attempts to be quaintly up-to-date signaled by her tendency to fist bump and use words like “whatever”; on the other hand, she can also reveal a retrograde attitude when words like “google” enter the conversation: “Why does that sound so vulgar?” she asks. She’s more a device than a person, with inconsistencies like a tendency to rail against the curse of money while unabashedly using it to get what she wants. Because of her geriatric quirkiness, she gets away with occasional one-offs, like “The closest I’ve ever come to an affair with a black man is to vote for Obama.”
Ms. Anderman strives valiantly to make us love Cornelia, but the character’s implausibility only makes her efforts seem strained, which can also be said of the one-note Harvey, the transparent Scott, the two-dimensional Agnes, and the barely defined Jessica. It’s great to see Mr. Gurney continuing to produce, but it would be greater still if he could do so while maintaining the quality of his earlier work.

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Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through October 4

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

48. Review: JOHN (seen August 8, 2015)

"Ghostly Gathering at a Gettysburg Address"

Stars range from 5-1.

 There are many spookily compelling but purposely unexplained ingredients in JOHN, the ghostly new play by rocketing young playwright Annie Baker, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning THE FLICK continues in its second life to draw audiences at the Barrow Street Theatre. In JOHN, Ms. Baker once again demonstrates her ineffable talent for creating a world in which atmosphere trumps plot, or at least plot in the conventional sense. Like THE FLICK, it runs around three and a quarter hours, which may try your patience, but its combination of director Sam Gold’s nuanced, pause-filled direction, an ideal four-actor ensemble, meticulously crafted characters and dialogue, and a dose of magic realism create an aura of spectral possibilities that will keep most viewers glued to their seats (I noticed a few defections when act three began). While not much actually happens, and it takes some time before passions burst, the play is filled with emotional and ideational undercurrents that keep you swimming with it. 
The action occurs shortly after Thanksgiving in a spacious bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the famous Civil War battle. Before Mimi Lien’s detailed, expansive setting is revealed, the heavy red traveler curtain hiding it is parted when the B&B’s 70ish owner, Mertis Katherine (“call me Kitty”) Graven (Georgia Engel), pushes one half to the side and then does so with the other (kabuki has a roughly similar convention). She’ll do this throughout, ending and beginning acts by closing or opening the curtains, just as if it were part of her housekeeping duties. In the same mundane manner, she’ll periodically move the time ahead by swirling the large hand on the practical grandfather clock forward, accompanied always by designer Mark Barton’s perfectly calibrated lighting adjustments.
The setting, with a staircase at center leading to the bedrooms, is divided into a living room at stage left and a Frenchified dining area (Mertis calls it “Paris”) at right. Up center are French doors leading to Mertis’s quarters. The place is jam-packed with miniature tchotchkes; an American Girl Samantha doll—which figures prominently in the action—stares vacantly from an elevated perch. A large, fully decorated Christmas tree—whose lights, chillingly, tend to go off and on at will—dominates the upstage area, and seasonal lights line the staircase. Bach plays almost continuously on a jukebox-like radio/CD player, and a player pianos tends to burst into loud, up-tempo renditions of  old-time songs, like “Me and My Shadow” without human intervention.
Mertis’s establishment, whose main rooms, each with its own personality, are named for Abraham Lincoln, Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson (presumably), and Gettysburg hero Joshua Chamberlain, gives every evidence of being haunted, a feeling heightened by creaking doors and sounds that hint at the beating of wings (Bray Poor did the expert sound design). During the Civil War the place served as a Union hospital, performing countless amputations. We learn there’s also a small, mysterious room named for Jennie Wade, although no one mentions that Wade was a 20-year-old who was the sole civilian casualty at Gettysburg; some may wonder, though, if there’s a connection between it and Jenny, the play’s young Asian American heroine.
Jenny (Hong Chau), who writes questions for a TV game show, arrives late one freezing night with her “Jewish atheist” boyfriend, Elias Schreibman-Hoffman (Christopher Abbott), whom Jenny describes as “a drummer slash computer programmer.” They’ve detoured here on their way to New York from Ohio because of Elias’s Civil War obsession. Jenny, though, is having her period and feeling poorly, so she spends much of her time in the B&B, chatting with Mertis, rather than sightseeing with Elias. There’s tension in the lovers’ relationship, presumably stemming from Elias’s jealousy over Jenny’s involvement with a guy named John, but it takes much of the evening to get to its heart.
Mertis, a widow who’s been married for 13 years to her present husband, the seriously ailing George (whom we never see and whose very existence is in question), is kind and compassionate, but beyond her mild-mannered geniality there’s something indefinably weird. She keeps a journal which, when she reads from it,  describes the sunset in floridly poetic prose, but when read by Elias is in an indecipherable tongue. She’s lost 40 pounds in four months on an unusual diet, has memorized all the bird groupings (like “an exaltation of larks”), and is able to answer each difficult quiz show question Jenny throws at her. Her best friend is the even older Genevieve (Lois Smith), an imposing, dark glasses-wearing, blind woman in her mid-80s, who offers a strange tale of her former insanity, when she believed her soul to have been inhabited by her then husband, named, like Jenny's other flame, John.
Madness, blindness, and sight, in fact, are among the many recurring motifs and images, which also include storytelling (perhaps reflecting personal truthfulness), supernaturalism, dreams, jealousy, heat and cold, birds, insects, and crushing loneliness. And, oh yes, there’s the lingering question of whether one feels watched by some greater power. Mertis, so apparently unassuming, tosses off arcane yet thematically relevant quotes, the Latin “Nunquam minus solus, quam cum solus” (“Never less alone as when alone”), and the Bible’s “Deep calling unto deep.” These subtextual streams occasionally help evoke a multilayered, mystical milieu that creates a sense of scary otherworldliness within the ordinary one in which the action transpires. Laughs are present, although, for me, not to the steady laugh track level with which some theatregoers responded when I saw the play.

Mr. Gold’s actors (appropriately costumed by Asta Bennie Hostetter) are outstanding, none more so than Ms. Engel, who makes Mertis even more enigmatic by her liltingly friendly voice, which captures the character's charming quaintness, as when she says, "I'll be dipped." She makes all of Mertis’s eccentricities completely believable, so you never can quite guess what darker secrets or powers she may have. As Genevieve, the venerable Ms. Smith offers her own memorable brand of eeriness while also never exceeding the bounds of naturalistic behavior. Mr. Abbott is perfectly in sync with the passive aggressiveness of the insecure, depressed, argumentative Elias, while Ms. Chau brings a grounded, everyday conviction to Jenny, whose every line sounds honest and authentic, despite the questionable truth of what she says. The actors bring so much intention to the many carefully orchestrated pauses that, before long, regardless of the lack of overt action, a subtle web of suspense weaves its threads around you.
Could the play be briefer? Yes. One thing I wouldn’t mind cutting comes directly after the curtain closes on act two. It’s a fourth-wall breaker that occurs while some people are halfway out the door heading for the bar or restrooms. Ms. Smith suddenly steps through the curtains to ask for five minutes (even seeking someone to time her on his watch), telling us we can have our intermission when she’s finished, and proceeds to deliver a speech on the seven stages of her character’s madness. The bit is clever but unnecessary, and smacks of authorial self-indulgence. 

There are several other implausible touches, almost as if the playwright believes that the umbrella of magic realism allows anything to become possible. Not so. JOHN nonetheless remains a striking piece of theatre, certain to stir up lots of post-show conversation.

Irene Diamond Theatre/Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through September 6

Monday, August 10, 2015

47. Review: CYMBELINE (seen August 7, 2015)

"When Shakespeare Was Hot to Plot"
Stars range from 5-1.

 In 1960 I played Pisanio in a college production of Shakespeare’s CYMBELINE. One of my clearest memories is of an actor playing the tiny part of Jupiter; during the intermission this poor thespian had to climb aboard a huge prop eagle hung high in the flies over the proscenium stage. The actor was asked to wait patiently in this precarious position until he could descend (“Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning”) and speak 18 lines during the jailed Posthumous’ big dream scene. That scene is one of the most famous in this infrequently produced dramaturgic omelet, which probably premiered in 1611, and directors have struggled to come up with all sorts of clever theatrical solutions to its staging. Daniel Sullivan, whose anything-goes revival of CYMBELINE closes out this summer’s season of Shakespeare in the Park, keeps the play bouncing with many amusing ideas, but, like a certain character in the play, the dream scene has been decapitated, its only remnant (perhaps as a nod to the cognoscenti) being a large eagle sculpture attached throughout to an upper corner of the set.
From left: Kate Burton, Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Strange to say, that’s okay, as the production already clocks in at nearly three hours, and, for all its charms, both funny and touching, the longeurs do begin settling in as one plot device piles upon the next. A program note even informs us that the final scene contains a whopping, record-breaking 27 revelations. No Shakespeare play has so dense a plot, with so many melodramatic machinations, nor so many mood swings, from farce to (momentary) tragedy. Mr. Sullivan realizes that, while there’s much here one must take seriously, the play itself can’t be taken seriously, so he allows Shakespeare’s own incongruities and anachronisms to inspire a similarly freewheeling and anachronistic interpretation, with costumes, music, and even actors’ mannerisms indiscriminately mingling periods and styles. The joyous company dance that closes the show (practically a Shakespeare in the Park tradition for the happier plays) is (as delightfully choreographed by Mimi Lieber) itself a mashup of minuet, country, and Broadway jazz.
Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
CYMBELINE, whose eponymous British king actually existed (as a chieftain called Cunobelin) during the first century B.C., is an entirely fictitious tale about the marriage of Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen (Lily Rabe) to the commoner Posthumus Leonatus (Hamish Linklater); the angry king’s banishment of Posthumus because he’s not a nobleman; the kidnapping 20 years previously of the king’s infant sons by the falsely accused Morgan, a.k.a. Belarius (Kate Burton); the ambition of Cymbeline’s evil queen (Ms. Burton) to have Imogen marry her oafish son, Cloten (Mr. Linklater), so he can become heir to the throne; the wager Posthumus makes in Rome with the slick Italian Iachimo (Raúl Esparza) that the latter can’t seduce Imogen; the deceitful winning of the bet by Iachimo; the war between Rome and Britain over the latter’s refusal to pay tribute; the order by Posthumus that his servant, Pisanio (Steven Skybell), kill Imogen as the pair journey to Wales; the evasion of the order by Pisanio, who has Imogen dress as a boy, Fidelé; the befriending by Imogen in Wales of her long-lost, cave-dwelling brothers, Guiderius (David Furr) and Arviragus (Jacob Ming-Trent), and their supposed father, Belarius, with neither she nor they knowing each other’s true identities; the beheading of Cloten, dressed as Posthumus, by one of the brothers, leading Imogen to believe the headless body is her husband’s; the entering into service with the Roman envoy Lucius (Teagle F. Bougere) by Imogen/Fidelé; the Britons’ defeat of the Romans; the imprisonment of Posthumus by the Britons; and the ultimate rapid-fire untying of each knot of misunderstanding and the consequent rejoicing of one and all.
From left: Hamish Linklater, Patrick Page, Raul Exparza. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As have others before him, Mr. Sullivan chooses to emphasize the play’s theatricality, using whatever means are necessary to make each disparate moment work. Riccardo Hernandez (who designed a similarly conceived production for Mr. Sullivan at San Diego’s Old Globe in 1999) has created a set composed of a circular thrust covered in faux grass, backed by a large picture frame, with a smaller one inside it, and with crates, trunks, statues, a chandelier, pieces of furniture, and the like artfully piled up at either side. The aforementioned eagle flies against the uppermost reaches of the larger frame. A red-tinted cutout of Jacque-Louis David’s “Napolean Crossing the Alps” stands upstage left, and another red-tinted cutout whose image I couldn’t make out stands upstage right. For much of the performance, Mr. Sullivan’s storytelling approach is accented by a curtain hanging within the smaller frame, with the title “The Story of Cymbeline” emblazoned on it. Actors wait their turns by sitting in bentwood chairs in front of the upstage curtain. At center, a circular platform rises to different heights as needed. All is beautifully lit by David Lander.
David Furr, Hamish Linklater, Jacob Ming-Trent. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
To either side of the circular stage are three rows of seats for a total of about two dozen spectators. As expected, a number of moments are staged among these happy visitors, and several actually are asked to read several lines during the opening exposition. That exposition itself is introduced by two actors, Mr. Furr and Mr. Ming-Trent, dressed as Delacorte Theatre ushers, whose opening admonishments to the audience blend into their lines as Shakespeare’s Gentlemen.
Hamish Linklater, Lily Rabe. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
CYMBELINE is a potentially large-cast play but Mr. Sullivan uses only eight actors to play the many characters. He’s fortunate to have a superbly talented, topflight cast, which allows him to exploit his players far more effectively than if they were limited to a single, relatively small role. Only Ms. Rabe as Imogen and Mr. Esparza as Iachimo play one principal role (they also fill in as crowd members). She displays a wide range, from Carole Lombard-like screwball feistiness to tragic heroine; her sharp-edged voice, cutting intelligence, and perfectly timed wit help make Imogen an always welcome presence. Mr. Esparza’s Iachimo, taking advantage of his musical theatre chops, makes his first appearance as a Bobby Darin-type Vegas lounge lizard, singing “Come, thou monarch of the vine, Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne!” from ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, as he cavorts with an unnamed, sexy dancer (Ms. Rabe, though uncredited). His Iachimo is as slick as his well-oiled hair and his scene in Imogen’s bedchamber is masterfully devious.
From left: Patrick Page, Hamish Linklater, Teagle F. Bougere. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Patrick Page is terrific as both Cymbeline and Philario, Posthumus’s Roman friend, played as a Mafia-like gambler; Kate Burton excels both as the villainous redheaded queen, played in the Snow White evil queen tradition, and, even more appealingly, as the aged rustic Belarius, physically overshadowed by his sturdy sons but gruffly patriarchal and stern; and Hamish Linklater doubles as both Posthumus, played with a touch of boyish naiveté, and the goofily malicious Cloten, for which he wears a ridiculous reddish-blonde wig making him look (and act) not unlike Jeff Daniels in the DUMB AND DUMBER movies. He tends to overdo the clownishness at times, thus diminishing the threat he represents, but nonetheless garners most of the show’s laughs. 

Teagle F. Bougere covers Lucius and the court doctor Cornelius, and when the play requires both to be on stage he does a bit of metatheatrical foolery allowing him to shift from one to the other. Steven Skybell, is busy mainly as the faithful Pisanio, but also appears in several smaller roles. His straightforward Pisanio taught me more about the role than I got from my own clueless performance over half a century ago. Finally, both Mr. Furr and Mr. Ming-Trent must be commended for their vivid work as the kidnapped brothers, as well as the two Gentlemen.
From left: Jacob Ming-Trent, David Furr, Patrick Page, Kate Burton, Steven Skybell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
There are a lot of takeaways here, including the contemporary-inflected songs Tom Kitt has written to Shakespeare’s lyrics, including the hand-clapping “Hark, Hark, the Lark” and the beautiful dirge beginning “Fear no more the heat of the sun”; an entrance by Imogen that has her climbing in over the large picture frame and down over the piled up junk to reach the stage floor; David Zinn’s costumes that mix and match periods ancient and modern; and Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet’s energetic (and even comical) contributions to the fighting sequences.
From left: Patrick Page, Kate Burton, Hamish Linklater, Teagle F. Bougere. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
CYMBELINE may not be a great play, but there are fragments of greatness in it. Daniel Sullivan and his wonderful cast have done everything they can to make it work, and, even if they don’t always succeed, I can’t think of many other things I’d rather have been doing on a beautiful summer night than seeing it come to life in Central Park. 
Steven Skybell, Hamish Linklater. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Delacorte Theatre/Shakespeare in the Park
Central Park at West 81st Street, NYC
Through August 23