Cymbeline is unabashedly a spectacle piece, and Lincoln Center Theater’s production, now at the Vivian Beaumont through January 6, 2008, makes the most of its grandiose fairytale qualities without resorting to Disney hokiness. It’s undeniably a magnificent show to view. Every scene is an exquisite little visual composition, from the ingenious set to the sumptuous costumes to the gorgeous performers, that truly gives one the feeling of being transported to another world. But Cymbeline is also not particularly subtle, and here it gets performed very, very broadly pretty much across the board. Sometimes it works, but more often it doesn’t, despite the heroic efforts of director Mark Lamos and his talented and experienced star-studded cast.
Many of the arguments about Cymbeline, written late in Shakespeare’s career, are that the story simply can’t decide what it wants to be. Thus, it holds a place as one of the Bard’s least performed plays. Without understanding some of its history, it’s also easy to dismiss Cymbeline as a rather silly play filled with annoying operatic histrionics.
Cymbeline is an amalgam of some of Shakespeare’s favorite themes and characters. It’s as if on a dare he tossed a bunch of names and scenarios into a hat, and then he was challenged to make a story out of whatever he pulled out. So, Lear (King Cymbeline) meets Rosalind/Viola/Juliet (Princess Imogen) meets Othello/Leontes (Posthumous Leonatus) meets Iago (Iachimo) as the Roman Empire invades ancient Briton, and hilarity ensues. But, wait – there are also ghosts, intervention from a Roman god, an ambitious evil stepmother (who’s also a witch) and her schmuck son Cloten! Comedy? Tragedy? History? Romance? Answer: all of the above and then some.
Lamos nicely overcomes a lot of the problematic staging issues with the help of Michael Yeargman’s deceptively simple, but breathtaking set design and Brian MacDevitt’s inspired lighting. While Cymbeline is actually set during the reign of Caesar Augustus (approximately the time of the birth of Christ), Jess Goldstein’s costumes are very Elizabethan, but this only adds to the production’s fantastical charm.
We’re offered some really wonderful performances and some just-showing-up performances. In the latter case, it’s difficult for to see the great John Cullum given so little to do in his role as King Cymbeline. It’s even more difficult to see a talent like Phylicia Rashad be restricted to a mustache-twirling sort of role (which she does abundantly well even without a mustache) and then die offstage.
As the beleaguered lovers, Martha Plimpton and Michael Cerveris have some nice individual moments, and some engaging scenes with others, but their chemistry together leaves a bit to be desired. Cerveris has the more thankless part of the non-sympathetic and dopey Posthumous who falls too quickly for Iachimo’s tricks. Plimpton, of course, has the plum role as Imogen, with some great costume changes and very attractive men with which to do her scenes. Her pixieish beauty and slight, almost androgynous frame serve her well when she assumes the guise of a boy in order to track down her husband.
The standout performances come from elsewhere. British actor Jonathan Cake makes villainous Iachimo sexy and tempting enough that it’s hard to believe Imogen isn’t thinking “Posthumous who?” And Cake makes Iachimo’s end of the play remorse for what he’s put the couple through both touching and believable. Adam Dannheiser as the hopeless putz Cloten steals the show in every scene as Imogen’s stepbrother and would-be suitor. His demise comes much too early in the show, and he is sorely missed. John Pankow puts in a less flashy but nicely layered performance as Posthumous’s loyal servant, Pisanio, who is deeply conflicted about carrying out some very unpleasant orders where Imogen is concerned. Paul O’Brien makes a perfect Belarius, and the Two Gentlemen, Richard Topol and Daniel Breaker, are a couple of likable gents who get to do some clowning with Cloten, while also serving as this play’s narrators/Chorus.
Given the challenges that Cymbeline poses in terms of being all over the map, and the fact that this production is three very long hours, this may not be the best play for a young child or even for the Shakespeare novice. But for those who know the territory a little better, while some of the line deliveries may make you wince a bit, this Cymbeline is still a good show to escape into a different world and re-experience the magic of theater.