Monday, July 27, 2015


Photo: Carol Rosegg
There really is no such thing as a bad night at the Delacorte Theater, the venue nestled inside Central Park where The Public Theater has offered free Shakespeare (and Sondheim, and Chekhov, and Brecht, etc) for over 50 years. But this past Saturday was a night to beat the band. The weather was ideal: neither too warm nor too cold, with just enough breeze to stave off sweaty discomfort. The sun was still high at the beginning of the performance, but it gradually faded into a perfect rouge sunset, before settling into a clear, dark night. There was minimal air traffic going on in the sky above the stage. The audience was appreciative and exhibited good theatrical manners -- not always a given in this particular theater, where eating and drinking is not only allowed but encouraged, and the staff seems to let people wander in and out as they please. Yes, everything about Saturday night at Shakespeare in the Park was perfect ... except the production.

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's so-called romances, deemed problem plays for centuries. It's always had its admirers -- Tennyson was buried with a copy of the text -- and it's detractors (Shaw called it "exasperating beyond all tolerance" and went so far as to provide a new ending in his 1937 Cymbeline Refinished). My feelings are somewhere in the middle. I admired Mark Lamos' sumptuous production for Lincoln Center in 2007 (with a fine cast including Michael Cerveris, Martha Plimpton and John Cullum) and thought Fiasco Theater's inventive staging -- which has been presented several times in New York over the last decade -- was a lot of fun. There's a lot of beautiful writing, but also a fair amount of dead weight, particularly in play's last third.

Unfortunately, Daniel Sullivan's production is the least successful I've seen. Like Fiasco's, it employs a small cast: nine actors, all playing more than one role. However, the concept doesn't work advantageously -- particularly on a large stage like the Delacorte, which doesn't always favor intimacy -- and not every actor succeeds in all (or any, in some cases) of their roles. Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater -- the darlings of the Delacorte, and real-life lovers, as well -- are cast as Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline (Patrick Page, appropriately regal) and her secret husband Posthumus Leonatus. Linklater also plays the comic role of Cloten, the son of Cymbeline's second wife (Kate Burton), to whom Imogen is promised. When Cymbeline learns of their affair, he banishes Posthumus to Italy, where he makes a bet with the scheming Iachimo (Raul Esparza) to prove Imogen's fidelity.

And from there, much other intrigue ensues, which involve cross-dressing, mistaken identity, drugging, rape and war. Truthfully, I've always found Cymbeline a rather lucid play -- I've suggested it to friends who claim to find Shakespeare hard to follow -- but this production felt needlessly compounded. It doesn't help that not all the actors are in top form. Rabe seemed low-energy on Saturday night, speaking her lines in a thin, flat voice and seeming uninterested in the proceedings. And while Linklater did well as the clownish Cloten, Posthumus is not a role that plays to his strengths. We know from his performance as Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (also in the park, back in 2010) that he is not an ideal romantic lead. And for an actor who made me shiver when he played Lenny in Pinter's The Homecoming, Esparza surprisingly failed to inject any menace into Iachimo, a character often compared with Iago.

Kate Burton carried the night as The Queen and looked like she was having a ball doing it. This fine actress is too often cast in dour roles, which is a shame, since she shines in comedy (such as her Tony-nominated performance in Roundabout's very funny production of The Constant Wife) and especially sinks her teeth into wicked roles that toe the line between scary and satirical (like her consistently brilliant work as Vice President Sally Langston of ABC's Scandal). In the only bit of double-casting that truly works, she also plays Belarius, the banished nobleman who shepherded Cymbeline's two stolen sons into the Welsh mountains and raised them as his own, and who cares for Imogen when she -- dressed as a boy, natch -- collapses in the woods looking for Posthumus. Burton hasn't been spending much time on the New York stage in recent years -- a true shame -- and her work here evidences why she's needed more than ever.

Cymbeline is not a complete misfire, like this season's earlier production of The Tempest. And I'm never going to tell people that they shouldn't spend a night watching Shakespeare in Central Park. But while I should have spent the evening enraptured and enthralled by the experience, my mind mostly lingered on how it should have been better.

[free tickets, Row N of the center section]

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