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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 2, 2007

Cymbeline by William Shakespeare. Directed by Mark Lamos. Sets by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Lighting by Brian MacDevitt. Original Music by Mel Marvin. Sound by Tony Smolenski IV and Walter Trarbach. Movement Consultant Seán Curran. Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Cast (in alphabetical order): Jeffrey M. Bender, Daniel Breaker, Jonathan Cake, Michael Cerveris, Anthony Cochrane, John Cullum, Noshir Dalal, Adam Dannheisser, Jordan Dean, Herb Foster, David Furr, Adam Greer, Michael W. Howell, Ezra Knight, LeRoy McClain, Paul O'Brien, Daniel Oreskes, John Pankow, Martha Plimpton, Phylicia Rashad, Gordana Rashovich, Nancy Rodroriguez, Michael Rossmy, Richard Topol, Gregory Wooddell, Jeff Wooman.
Theatre: Lincoln Center Theater - Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours, including one 15 minute intermission.
Audience: May be inappropriate for 13 and under. Children under the age of 5 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket price: Orchestra and Loge (Rows A-C) $90, Loge (Rows D-E) $65.
Tickets: Telecharge

John Cullum, Michael Cerveris, and Martha Plimpton
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Theatrical soap operas hardly get sudsier than Cymbeline, the William Shakespeare romance so convoluted it makes most contemporary costume dramas seem sensible. The clueless king! The wicked queen, armed with a bottle of poison! The exiled brother, with two children that aren't his own! The heartbroken young woman masquerading as a man! In the wake of a bet made between her husband and a shifty Italian over the depth of her virtue! Truly, this is a play where the exclamation points never stop coming.

Yet in Mark Lamos's gorgeously appointed production for Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, there's no shortage of more varied punctuation as well. Quotation marks for valuable flashes of comedy peppering the story of true love (both romantic and stately) gone sour. Periods for the mild-mannered, matter-of-fact line readings of almost everyone in the accomplished cast. Ellipses twice over: One set for twinkling star Martha Plimpton to place near the end of all of the heroine Imogen's sentences to suggest half a dozen hidden feelings; and one for co-star Michael Cerveris to drop indiscriminately between words as though ponderousness and nuanced reflection were one and the same.

Cymbeline itself suffers from similar delusions, not just because it's lodged uneasily between tragedy and comedy (as are many of Shakespeare's late-career works), but because its inclinations toward parody, satire, and self-referentiality are themselves poorly developed. With tragic allusions to Hamlet and Othello, the sometimes musty and convoluted air of the History plays, and the free-wheeling coincidence and cross-dressing of the Comedies, the play often seems to be both Shakespeare and Meta-Shakespeare, just as freshly fashioned as it is old hat.

This production doesn't solve all the problems inherent in this problem play. But it benefits greatly from Lamos's respect for it, as well as the coherent, congruous vision he brings to it - something seldom accorded plays that historically need to be "fixed." Lamos hasn't rewritten Cymbeline a la George Bernard Shaw, who famously penned a new fifth act to substitute for Shakespeare's heavily melodramatic (and revelation-strewn) conclusion, but he's emphasized the action and heightened the drama in ways that suggest a minor reshuffling (or at least re-copying) of some dusty old pages.

Under Lamos's direction, the action moves crisply from Britain to Italy to Wales and even to the inner boundaries of dreams, leaving battles both world-spanning and intimate ample room to unfold. There's an unusual intensity to the wager between Posthumus (Cerveris) and Iachimo (Jonathan Cake) over the extent of the chastity of Posthumus's wife Imogen. The rampart-rubbing relish of that nasty old queen (a grandly outsized Phylicia Rashad) and the emotional ebbs and flows of the titular king (John Cullum, giving his most energetic performance in years) prove crucial fixtures in a culture awash in the political turbulence of a territory at war with the Roman Empire.

With the help of pageant-rich sets by Michael Yeargan (in which even the trees are as opulent as an emperor's palace), the colorful costumes of Jess Goldstein, and the shimmering lights of Brian MacDevitt, nearly all the stodginess and confusion have been stripped from this often-overloaded play. So keen is its fluid motion and sense of purpose that at its effortless best it recalls two other LCT epics of recent years, 2003's Henry IV and last season's The Coast of Utopia. This Cymbeline feels as if it could only happen here and now.

That modernity occasionally comes with a price, however. It's best exemplified by Cerveris: His self-involved performance involves so much chewing and swallowing of words, you can't help wonder how he manages to stay so thin. Adam Dannheisser is only slightly more appropriate as the Queen's smarmy, vengeance-driven son Cloten, bringing a dangerously cartoonish rage to the play's most overtly destructive character.

Martha Plimpton and Jonathan Cake
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

In contrast, Cake's pointed bravado provides more mature nuance to the scheming Iachimo, painting him as a serious threat to civility in a world at war both inside the court and outside the castle's walls. Richard Topol and Daniel Breaker highlight the story's occasion but not its stuffiness as two all-knowing narrators brought in to keep the peace during the story's more tangled moments. As Cymbeline's estranged brother, Paul O'Brien is terrific at bearing on his shoulders the brunt of a complicated personal history.

But it's Plimpton's orderly take on the central role that most strongly anchors this production amid its own choppy seas. She's by turns passionate, cunning, and graceful, timeless in commitment and yet apparently ageless as well. Her unique blend of youthful looks, adult vocal authority, and guileless understanding of life's complexities makes her Imogen equally convincing at all three stages of her development: the initial innocent princess; the harder-and-wiser woman on the run; and as the boy who can safely take refuge in the dangerous wilderness, as well as become the bargaining chip that can set everyone once more down the path to rightness.

Moving Imogen from helpless observer to major mover and shaker requires Plimpton to employ most of the weapons in her well-stocked classical arsenal, and it's as you witness transformation after transformation that the actress herself becomes an ideal component in the play. It, too, is packed with elements forever at war, wanting to be too many things to too many people. But with Plimpton and Lamos at the top of their form - and at the forefront of the fight - you're assured that however messy things get, there's a method to all the madness. It's hard to remember the last time barely controlled entropy was this kind of good, clean fun.

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