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Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is stagy trash of the lowest melodramatic order.
Before you take umbrage, be advised that it’s not this reviewer speaking, but rather George Bernard Shaw, who happened to be a successful literary critic before embarking on an even more successful career as a playwright. And he wasn’t alone in his opinion: famed Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey noted of the play that it was difficult to resist the conclusion that Shakespeare was “getting bored himself.”
Indeed, this late romance, being presented as the summer’s second offering in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series, is one of the Bard’s most problematic works and most difficult to successfully stage. Featuring allusions to characters and situations from many of his previous plays, it’s as if he was raiding his attic in search of inspiration.
Directed by Daniel Sullivan, this production literally seizes on that notion with Riccardo Hernandez‘ set — with space defined by a pair of giant, gilded frames — which resembles a cluttered attic piled high with crates, chairs, marble busts and other detritus. The stage is bookended by the mammoth images of an armored tank and a detail from the famous painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” although what they have to do with the proceedings is anybody’s guess. Even the costumes seem to come from an attic dress-up trunk, with styles ranging from Elizabethan to garish contemporary, a la Rat-Pack-era Las Vegas.
And if you think the set and costuming sound overdone, wait till you get a load of the plot. The story begins with the banishment from England of Posthumus (Hamish Linklater), the secret commoner husband of Imogen (Lily Rabe), the daughter of the British king Cymbeline (Patrick Page). She had been promised to Cloten (Linklater, again, only in a silly pageboy wig), the loutish son of the scheming second-wife queen (Kate Burton).
After arriving in Italy, Posthumus comes into unfortunate contact with the evil Iachimo (Raul Esparza) — any resemblance to Iago is hardly unintentional — who makes a wager with him that he can seduce the virtuous Imogen. This sets into motion a dizzyingly complicated chain of events that eventually includes some chance meetings with Cymbeline’s sons, unknown to him, who are being raised by the banished nobleman Belarius (Burton, again) in the Welsh forest. Needless to say, cross-dressing is involved.
If all that isn’t enough to leave you exhausted, wait until the play’s final scene, in which a barrage of dramatic revelations is hurled at the audience with such giddy rapidity that it becomes almost sublime in its ridiculousness.
All of this inevitably proves a challenge to stage, and director Sullivan has essentially taken a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks approach,” in which the tone veers wildly between broad slapstick and tearful tragedy. As the villainous Iachimo, Esparza makes his entrance performing a lounge singer musical number, while later Linklater — as the buffoonish Cloten — sings a British Invasion-style pop ditty (Tom Kitt of Next to Normal and If/Then fame wrote the music). Both he and Burton play important dual roles, further adding to the accentuated artificiality of the proceedings, as do the half-hearted attempts at audience participation.
Filled with broad bits of comic business such as Cloten’s protracted fussing with oversized swords, the production amplifies the play’s general incoherence. Only in isolated moments does it display emotional power, such as the haunting scene in which Iachimo, having snuck into the bedchamber of the sleeping Imogen, gathers the intimate evidence necessary to dupe an unwitting Posthumus.
The performers work very hard to put it all over, and for the most part they succeed. Linklater and Rabe, who co-starred in last year’s Central Park production of Much Ado About Nothing and who are romantically involved in real life, demonstrate an undeniable chemistry that may eventually earn them Lunt and Fontanne status. The booming-voiced Page makes a commanding Cymbeline; Burton effectively inhabits her disparate dual roles, even if her evil queen seems a little too Disneyish; Esparza is memorably creepy and slinky as the villain, and such supporting performers as Steven Skybell and Teagle F. Bougere make strong impressions.
But by the time the lengthy evening concludes with an elaborate dance number in which Esparza garners cheers for his Broadway-style moves, you’re likely to feel thoroughly exhausted. The play’s happy ending has never felt so hard-earned.
Cast: Teagle F. Bougere, Kate Burton, Raul Esparza, David Furr, Hamish Linklater, Jacob Ming-Trent, Patrick Page, Lily Rabe, Steven Skybell
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Music: Tom Kitt
Choreographer: Mimi Lieber
Presented by the Public Theater
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Melvin Van Peebles