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