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Theatre in Review: Cymbeline (New York Shakespeare Festival/Delacorte Theater)

Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater. Photo: Carol Rosegg

In a way, Riccardo Hernandez's set design for Cymbeline gives us a preview of director Daniel Sullivan's approach to this problematic Shakespeare tragicomedy. A raised circular deck, surrounded by audience seating, features an enormous gold frame. This rather grand-looking set piece -- which bears the august Latin acronym SPQR -- is anchored on either side by piles of wooden crates, some of them marked "King Lear" and "Hamlet." Surrounding them are piles of random props: chairs, chandeliers, busts, mermaid statues, deer heads, gilded skeletons, and mirrors. At far stage right is a red cutout of an army tank. At far stage left is a cutout of Napoleon, astride a rearing horse.

You're probably thinking, "Whaaaat?" But I like to think that Sullivan and Hernandez are warning audiences that they had better be ready for anything. Cymbeline isn't traditionally considered one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," but it usually causes plenty of problems for those trying to figure out a coherent way of staging it. That's because it is an anything-goes farrago of plot elements, including court intrigue, forced marriages, kidnapped children, a poison that only makes its victims look dead, an outrageous wager over the heroine's virtue, an even more outrageous deception over the same, a war with Rome, and a wild case of mistaken identity involving a headless corpse. It all climaxes in the mother of all recognition scenes, in which, according to artistic director Oskar Eustis' program notes, "scholars have counted 27 revelations."

It's not just the convoluted plotting; Cymbeline joins farce to horror, comedy to heartbreak, in ways that can leave audiences scratching their heads. Many attempts at finding a unifying concept have come to grief; in my experience, the only successful attempt was that of Andrei Serban, whose 1998 production, also at the Delacorte, converted it into a grave and austerely beautiful fairy tale. Sullivan takes a different approach that, for all its theatrical devices, takes the play at face value and plays each moment -- funny, sad, or violent -- for real. By all rights, this should result in a total mishmash of styles and tones; instead, Sullivan's production finds some kind of internal logic to this wayward tale that ultimately proves to be strangely moving.

Of course, it helps to have great actors, and Sullivan has an exceptionally gifted company, many of whom pull off some startling double acts. Lily Rabe gives a limpid, unmannered account of Imogen, the put-upon heroine who angers her father, Cymbeline, King of Britain, by marrying the man she loves; pressured to abandon him and marry her stepmother's idiot offspring, she becomes the victim of one plot after another: Her virtue is slandered, she is set up for murder, and she ends up roaming the countryside disguised as a man. Rabe brings a powerful dignity and depth of feeling to a character who can seem like the star of her own soap opera, racing from one disaster to the next. The role doesn't provide any opportunities for the high-comedy pyrotechnics that she brought to As You Like It or Much Ado About Nothing, but, if anything, this performance shows that she doesn't need mannerisms to exert a powerful claim on the audience's sympathy.

Rabe also plays beautifully in her few scenes with Hamish Linklater as Posthumus Leonatus, her exiled husband. Linklater is especially affecting when, duped into thinking that Imogen has betrayed him sexually, his heart all but breaks in plain view. In an especially deft coup, Linklater also doubles as Cloten, the moronic offspring of Cymbeline's second wife, who wants Imogen for himself. Outfitted with a wig that makes him look like the Renaissance ancestor of Jim Carrey's Dumb and Dumber character, Linklater once again proves that he is the rare leading man who is also a first-rate clown. ("I'd rather not be so noble as I am," he says, sounding like he is reading the line phonetically.) He is especially amusing when, driven to war, he strides around, oafishly trying to pull a too-large sword from its sheath, nearly tripping himself up in the process.

Cloten causes plenty of trouble, but he remains laughable throughout. For a purer evil, there's Iachimo, the villain, who, to win a bet with Leonatus, makes a convincing case that Imogen has been unfaithful. In Sullivan's vision, Iachimo is a discordantly modern figure who invades this pre-medieval world with a form of cunning that is otherwise unknown to it; this is illustrated by Tom Kitt's score, which underscores Iachimo's entrances with swingy Rat Pack melodies that contrast with the more stately, melancholy music used elsewhere. It's a gamble, but it works: Raul Esparza's Iachimo is the smoothest of liars when ingratiating himself with Imogen, and he is especially good when invading her bedroom to collect details he can use against her. (This scene is one of the purest violations of a woman to be found in drama, even though it stops far short of rape.) And when he is finally caught, Esparza does the near-impossible, making Iachimo's sudden repentance seem deeply felt.

The rest of the ensemble may constitute the definition of luxury casting. Kate Burton, resplendently Elizabethan in an upturned red wig and enormous black gown, is a silver-tongued liar, hatching schemes in love and war, as Cymbeline's conniving queen; in a display of virtuosity, she also appears as Belarius, the lord who, unfairly banished by Cymbeline, kidnapped his two sons. Patrick Page captures Cymbeline's headstrong nature, especially when baring his fury at his disobedient daughter. As a loyal servant who must work both sides of the fence, Steven Skybell grounds the craziest plot twists in a recognizable reality. Teagle F. Bougere is formidable as the Roman general who, fed up with the prevarications of Cymbeline and his queen, invades Britain, bent on conquest. A variety of roles -- most notably Cymbeline's adult sons--- sparkle in the assured hands of David Furr and Jacob Ming-Trent.

Sullivan's staging is full of sly extratheatrical winks -- including the opening sequence, in which audience members, reading from cards, quiz Furr and Ming-Trent about the play's back story -- and many bits of genuine wit: The court doctor snatching a dog out of Burton's hands, realizing that the queen intends to test her newest poison on the pooch; Iachimo, eyeing Imogen lustfully and saying of Leonatus, "Heaven's bounty to him might be used more thankfully;" Imogen dismissing Cloten with the simplest and most cutting of remarks ("I pray you, spare me, faith"); Cloten, trying to strike a manly pose à la Leonatus ("I mean, the lines of my body are as well drawn as his"). But there are many moments of high drama as well: Imogen, betrayed, crying out, "O, men's vows are women's traitors;" the torment of the servant Pisanio as he leads Imogen to her intended doom; Cymbeline, frantically popping pills as his hold on power slackens; and Iachimo, in profound sorrow, offering up the diamond he has used as evidence against Imogen. And for once, the final recognition scene, for all its absurdities, reverberates with a profound sense of forgiveness and harmony restored.

The rest of the physical production contributes to the overall effect. David Zinn's costumes blend styles from many periods into a surprisingly unified whole. Charles G. LaPointe's hair and wigs are especially helpful for the actors who must double in such differing roles. David Lander's lighting creates a variety of looks, as befits a play that wanders all over the geographical and emotional maps; The sound design by Acme Sound Partners is typically clear and clean; it also includes some truly upsetting wartime effects.

If Sullivan's direction doesn't make a case for Cymbeline as a major work, it certainly convinces us that it is a rattling good story, especially in the hands of a nimble cast. There are powerful things in this play, and ridiculous things, as well -- but, taken seriously by fine artists, it can cast a spell all its own. This is a production that checks all of those boxes, and then some. -- David Barbour

(11 August 2015)

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