The Theatre for a New Audience production of Cymbeline which just opened at the Lucille Lortel is history-making: Its premiere with the Royal Shakespeare Company in November was the first time an American theatre company was invited to perform a Shakespeare play in Stratford.
This production doesn't quite live up to the hype accorded to it by such a prestigious beginning, but it's not for lack of trying; there is a great deal that is good here. Most of that is due to the apparently unbounded creativity of its director, Bartlett Sher.
The work he has done here is primarily a study in contrasts. The disparate groups that populate Shakespeare's play are represented onstage by primarily Roman soldiers, Japanese nobles, and American cowboys (all charmingly costumed by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward). The effect in the first scene is jarring, but effective at drawing the distinction between the characters. Sher's staging of the opening scene, in which the characters are introduced, is jarring, but clever and visually striking.
This shattered, though, in his staging of two musical moments that end each of the acts. Cymbeline is well-renowned for the beauty of its poetry and songs penned by Shakespeare. Sher has subverted nearly all of it and turned the songs into country-western numbers. Akerlind creates a dazzling "sunset over the horizon" effect for the end of the first act, but the performances of the numbers themselves (complete with microphones none of the actors seem to otherwise need) are tremendously distracting, robbing the rest of the play of the atmosphere otherwise so prevalent.
These are the two times it seems like Sher didn't trust the material to speak for itself, and these moments wildly miss the mark. But, since little story is being passed along during these musical numbers, not much is lost.
The production and the actors do well in projecting the story of Posthumus Leonatus (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the troubles he creates when he attempts to test the faithfulness of his wife, Imogen (played by Erica N. Tazel with breathless grace and a modern twinge). Her father, Cymbeline, is played with stately conviction and warmth by Robert Stattel, while Boris McGiver's Iachimo, who bets Posthumus he will bed Imogen, is appropriately oily. The cowboys of the story, Earl Hindman, as the banished Belarius, and his two charges (Peter Starrett and Roderick Hill) spice their scenes with country twangs and effective comedy.
The weakest link in the cast is Andrew Weems, as the nasty and ill-fated Cloten. He attacks his lines viciously and lacks the balance and control so coolly displayed by others in the cast. His Cloten seems less rich and more black and white than most of the other characters.
Problematic and unfortunate as his Cloten is, aside from that and the bizarre musical numbers, there's little else to fear overall. There's plenty of other color and life with which Sher has otherwise infused this Cymbeline.
Boris McGiver (Iachimo) and rival Michael Stuhlbarg (Posthumus Leonatus)
Theatre for a New Audience