August 15, 2015

"Cymbeline" is a Mess, But Still Merry

Shakespeare scholars say that Cymbeline is one of the Bard's problem plays. That's in part because it’s perversely named after a secondary character and is classified as a tragedy even though, as in Shakespeare's comedies, all loose ends are happily tied up by the final curtain. So, Cymbeline is rarely performed compared to Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear. Which is why I was looking forward to the production that is playing at the Delacorte Theater through Aug. 23 as the final production in this year’s Shakespeare in the Park series. And I’m glad I got the chance to see it but you shouldn’t feel too badly if you don’t.

The production directed by Daniel Sullivan is entertaining but I’m not sure how true it is to the spirit of the play. Although, to be fair, Shakespeare himself didn’t seem to be sure of what that spirit was. For Cymbeline is the 34th of the 38 plays credited to the Bard and it unspools like one of those highlights reels that get put together for awards shows. The resulting story is a hodgepodge.

Here, in two chunky paragraphs, is the plot: Cymbeline, an English king in rebellion against the Romans, is angry that his daughter Imogen has secretly married a commoner named Posthumus Leonatus because the girl’s twin brothers were kidnapped as infants and she is now her father’s sole heir. So Cymbeline banishes Posthumus from the kingdom and, spurred on by his conniving second wife, tries to marry Imogen to her distasteful stepbrother Cloten, who hatches a plan to win her by raping her.

Meanwhile, Posthumus flees to Italy, where he is tricked into a wager with the unscrupulous nobleman Iachimo who boasts that he can get Imogen to bed him. When Iachimo fakes evidence of the seduction, Posthumus not only disowns his true love but puts a hit out on her. Disguised as a young man, Imogen escapes and finds refuge with a mysterious peasant and his two sons. Eventually, they all end up on the battlefield against the Romans. And in a barrage of last-minute revelations, true identities are disclosed, confusions untangled and comeuppances meted out.

There is some fun to be had in identifying the familiar bits from some of Shakespeare’s other plays: the-foolish-father-wise-daughter dynamic from Lear, the misdirected lovers from Romeo and Juliet, the dastardly villain from Othello, the cross-dressing heroine from Twelfth Night and the missing twins from just about every comedy he wrote. But stitching those motley pieces into a smooth narrative proves messy.

Like others before him (click here for my review of Mark Lamos' 2007 production at Lincoln Center) Sullivan tries to camouflage the rough thread by trimming some of the unwieldy plot (the character of the Roman god Jupiter is entirely cut out in this version) and gussying up what’s left with lots of comedic business, music and other assorted merriment, including participation from some audience members who are seated onstage (click here to read about how he came up with it all).

But there are moments when he tries too hard. When Posthumus and Iachimo make their bet about Imogen’s chastity, they do it over a too on-the-nose casino table. And the costumes are a real grab bag of styles that range from Rat Pack suits for Iachimo to Elizabethan gowns for the queen and contemporary hipster slip dresses for Imogen.

But I’ve no complaints about the wonderful cast. The plummy-voiced Patrick Page, always one of my faves, plays Cymbeline with regal authority. Raúl Esparza, making his first stage appearance in three years, is deliciously malicious as Iachimo and is, of course, terrific when performing a couple of songs. Meanwhile, Kate Burton has tons of fun as the nefarious queen.

But the evening belongs to the show's leads: Lily Rabe as the proud and virtuous Imogen and Hamish Linklater, who plays both Posthumus and, with great relish, Cloten. This is the third time the pair have appeared in one of these summer productions. Both grew up in theatrical families and apparently took in the ability to speak and act Shakespeare with their mothers' milk. They're excellent.

Linklater and Rabe are also a couple in real-life (click here to read more about that) and the connection between them is palpable. You don’t always see the chemistry onstage between real-life couples but you sure do see it here. It would be fun to see what they might do with The Taming of the Shrew.

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