Thursday, August 13, 2015

NYC Theater Review—'Cymbeline' in Central Park

Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through August 23, 2015
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Lily Rabe and Raul Esparza in Cymbeline (photo: Carol Rosegg)
That Shakespeare jumped the shark with Cymbeline, a late-career romance that includes so many wild plot twists and crazy final-act revelations and reversals it's as if the Bard had decided to send up his entire playwriting career in one fell swoop, is pretty indisputable.

So it's not surprising that director Daniel Sullivan plays fast and loose with its many eccentricities for his Central Park staging, jettisoning the ancient Britain and Renaissance Rome settings, doing the usual Delacorte dumbing down by making things cruder and more farcical, and excising one of Shakespeare's most famous dream sequences: the appearance of the god Jupiter on an eagle.

The problem with this approach is that Cymbeline, for all its inconsistencies (literary luminaries Bernard Shaw and Samuel Johnson famously hated it), is a carefully constructed and ultimately moving exploration of love, death and reconciliation. By treating it as a string of entertaining scenes with added song and dance interludes, Sullivan ends up merely skimming the surface of Shakespeare's deep, dark, often sorrowful text.

His fast-paced three hour production thrives on audience participation, a desperate strategem for any director: the performers get to play to and ackowledge a few dozen spectactors sitting in several rows placed on either side of the stage, which makes for fun but unnecessary interaction. There's also much bric-a-brac at the sides of the stage (which looks salvaged from earlier Delacorte productions), including piles of crates—not to be confused with the trunk featured in the famous bedroom scene—on which are stamped King Lear and Hamlet and, unaccountably, oversized cutouts of Napoleon on horseback and an armored tank. 

None of this really adds anything, but doesn't really detract either. What does detract are the mediocre performances of the Delacorte's current "it" couple, Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, whose inflated reputations as top-flight Shakespeareans continues to mystify. Rabe, whose Imogen never reaches the poetic heights of one of Shakespeare's most sympathetically drawn females, fleetingly rises to the occasion when disguised as a boy, while Linklater fails to impress in not one but two roles (nine performers enact some two dozen roles throughout). As both the heroic Posthumous and the idiotic Cloten, Linklater falls equally flat.

Others fare better. Kate Burton makes a gleefully evil stepmother as the Queen and doubles amusingly as banished old man Belarius, whose "sons" are integral to the convoluted plot revelations, while Patrick Page is a well-spoken and quietly elegant King Cymbeline. Best of all is the villainous Iachimo of Raul Esparza, whose charismatic performance works despite Sullivan making him a Rat Pack-era Sinatra. 

Esparza beautifully sings "Come, thou monarch of the vine," lifted from Anthony and Cleopatra (the not inapposite music is by Tom Kitt), dances sinuously when given the chance, and is the lone cast member who sounds like he understands what he's saying, especially in the bedroom scene, when he takes the measure of the sleeping Imogen to gather proof that he slept with her to win a bet with Posthumous.

If only Sullivan had given Esparza more Shakespearean songs to sing, I wouldn't have minded that his Cymbeline isn't really Cymbeline at all.

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