An almost tearfully thankful air envel ops the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, when, to ward the end of Mark Lamos' emotionally charged production of "Cymbeline," the King declaims: "Pardon's the word for all." Pardon and peace.
And perhaps pieces, too, for what is entrancing in this Shakespeare play is that the characters seem like marvelous chess pieces, all glimpsed in earlier plays and caught here in some magic endplay of autumnal resolution.
"Cymbeline" is one of those final Shakespearean plays we call, having no better description, romances - and they all have this same autumnal glow about them.
Though written when the playwright was only in his mid-40s, autumn came a little earlier in his day.
Shakespeare's people are wonderfully of our own selves, while reappearing again and again in the scope of his imagination.
His steadfast heroine, Imogen, we've seen and loved in a dozen plays, but here she reaches the epitome of her womanhood.
Jealous husband Posthumus recalls Leontes of "The Winter's Tale" or even Othello, while the Machiavellian villain Iachimo echoes Iago, and King Cymbeline, Imogen's father, has more than a crazed touch of Lear to him.
Yet, oddly enough, "Cymbeline" has traditionally had a reputation ranging from bad to difficult. It's not. It's a fairy tale for adults who have suffered enough to believe in fairies and heavenly providence.
Perhaps the prime virtues of Lamos' elegant, eloquent staging (and the man is among the finest Shakespearean directors in the world) are its grace, speed and total intelligibility. More than any of the many productions of "Cymbeline" I've seen, it has an immediacy that grips, grasps and tenaciously holds.
He is blessed with two essential assets. The first is his design team, giving us Michael Yeargan's otherworldly and audaciously theatrical settings, Jess Goldstein's carefully and beautifully apt costuming, Brian MacDevitt's sensuous lighting, and the quietly bewitching music of Mel Marvin.
Then, of course, there is his cast. The three principals are splendid. Martha Plimpton's gutsy yet vulnerable Imogen, Michael Cerveris as her wronged and poetically distraught husband Posthumus, and his betrayer Jonathan Cake's slinkily sensual Iachimo (he even makes his remorseful penitence convincing) offer a trio that would be hard to beat.
Among the other roles, John Cullum is all melancholy dignity as Cymbeline, Imogen's father; and Adam Dannheisser is riotously funny as the clownish Cloten, Imogen's other suitor.
The cast throughout is generally very strong, its weakest link being Phylicia Rashad as Cymbeline's second wife, and mother to Cloten, who seems to think she's playing the Wicked Queen in Disney's "Snow White." Not quite.
But this and one or two other quibbles apart, Lincoln Center's "Cymbeline" is an enthralling evening of Shakespeare, one that leaves you thinking, at least briefly, that all is right with the world.
Of course, it's simply a playwright's magic dust expertly scattered.
Just about everyone left living at the end of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” is onstage for the play’s crowded climax. And just about everyone has a surprise or two to disclose.
The queen is not doing so well, the good doctor informs the king, but wait till you hear what she just told me! The Roman general’s page, a willowy young man, is revealed to be neither Italian nor a man. Those rustic, dirt-begrimed warriors? Royal blood runs in their veins. The presumed dead are really living, the presumed living declared dead.
“Does the world go round?” cries Cymbeline, the British king who presides over this circus of revelations with increasing bafflement. It does indeed seem as if time has stopped — and sense has evaporated along with it — in this giddy finale, perhaps the most freakishly convoluted of Shakespeare’s celebrated reconciliation scenes. A flow chart, with twisty arrows going this way and that, could profitably be handed out as the audience exits the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the play opened last night.
But that will not really be necessary because Lincoln Center Theater’s stately production of “Cymbeline,” Shakespeare’s late romance, or tragicomedy, or whatnot, is remarkable for its lucidity. In imposing a formal elegance on one of Shakespeare’s most wayward plays, the director, Mark Lamos, keeps confusion firmly at bay, smoothing its kinked story line into a well-drilled parade of avowals and betrayals, plots and counterplots, deaths and resurrections.
The clarity and restrained opulence of the production are more satisfying, unfortunately, than the caliber of the performances, which tend toward blandness or overstatement. The singular exception is an outstanding turn from Michael Cerveris, who provides the play with a wrenching emotional center as a husband who believes himself to be grossly betrayed, and who betrays his own nobler self in seeking to avenge this wrong.
Still, in the wake of the bruising Broadway stagehands’ strike, one inclines toward benevolence. (“Pardon’s the word to all,” as Cymbeline movingly says in that last scene, amid confessions of perfidy and disloyalty.) Although it was not shut down in previews, because the nonprofit theaters have separate pacts with the unions, “Cymbeline” is the first Broadway show to open since the strike ended. A mere coincidence, obviously, but a reminder that despite its reputation for gaudy star vehicles and money-spinning musicals, Broadway can also be the place to go for first-class reappraisals of classic plays with no great track record at the box office.
The reputation of “Cymbeline” as a rarity is possibly overstated. Believe it or not, this is at least the fifth significant production to be presented in New York in less than a decade, a tally matched by only a few of Shakespeare’s major tragedies or comedies. I suspect the play is catnip to ambitious directors for the challenges it presents. Is it a fairy tale with a war in the middle of it, a tragedy with a happy ending, or a romantic comedy with poison and a headless corpse?
Some directors indulge and exacerbate its unruly variety; others impose order. Mr. Lamos clearly prefers order, plus a layer of gloss. Michael Yeargan’s gleaming set design frames the play neatly in a series of grandly scaled gilt prosceniums and doorways. The backdrops change, but the play is essentially performed in traditional classical fashion, with minimal scenery, keeping the focus firmly on the complicated furniture of the dramatis personae and the multi-tiered plot. (How do we know that we’ve left the British court and moved to the Welsh countryside? Well, there are more gold columns in the wilderness.) The dialogue between two anonymous gentlemen that opens the play is delivered virtually as a lecture to the audience, lest anyone miss any crucial details. Life is short, I know, but bear with me for the basics.
King Cymbeline (John Cullum), having discovered that his daughter Imogen (Martha Plimpton) has secretly married her beloved, Posthumus (Mr. Cerveris), banishes the formerly favored lad from the kingdom. Cymbeline’s wicked queen (Phylicia Rashad) plots to have her doltish son Cloten (Adam Dannheisser) marry Imogen. Failing that, she’ll simply bump Imogen off with a vial of poison.
Exiled to Italy, Posthumus falls in with another baddie, Iachimo (Jonathan Cake), who bets him that he can seduce Imogen in a trice and proceeds to attempt it when he visits the British court. Meanwhile in Wales, Belarius (Paul O’Brien), a lord long ago banished from Cymbeline’s court, is raising two boisterous young men, Guiderius (David Furr) and Arviragus (Gregory Wooddell), who happen to be the king’s long-lost (abducted) sons.
Rich in odd incident — there’s even a god in a machine, by golly! — the play is not as notable for the depth of its characterizations, and it has relatively few celebrated passages. (Among these is one of Shakespeare’s loveliest songs, “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” sung at Imogen’s supposed death. Here, though, the lyric is spoken.)
Iachimo, with his duplicitousness and obscurely motivated, Iago-esque aggression, is an interesting villain. But Mr. Cake, who spends much of his onstage time shirtless (for reasons that are obvious), is more a sexy, swaggery charmer than a potently maleficent presence. The nitwit Cloten is a surefire comic character, and Mr. Dannheisser hits his marks (he looks, amusingly, like Will Ferrell in a cheongsam), but he fails to put a distinctive stamp on the role. Ms. Rashad, on the other hand, makes every consonant count as the queen — and seems to invent a few new ones too — in a plummy performance straight out of a Disney movie, replete with wicked-looking headgear. (Jess Goldstein’s lush, embroidered costumes for these ancient Britons are distinctly Asian, although the Romans look generically Roman.) Among the smaller roles I particularly admired the Pisanio of John Pankow for his simplicity and humanity.
As the plot précis suggests, estrangement — physical, political or emotional — is a keynote of the play, most movingly rendered in the relationship between Imogen and Posthumus, who are separated in the play’s first moments and not reunited until its last. Ms. Plimpton is spunky and appealing (I liked the brisk way Imogen wipes her hands of the oily Iachimo), and Imogen’s tender reunion with Posthumus is simply done and affecting. But mannerism sometimes creeps into Ms. Plimpton’s vocal delivery; she always sounds admirably Shakespearean, but only intermittently human.
If the faithful Imogen is the most famous (and the best) role in “Cymbeline,” in this production the journey of Posthumus provides the most engrossing dramatic arc. It is Posthumus’s behavior, after all, that determines the near-tragic course of the play. Mr. Cerveris’s nuanced, progressively more intense performance makes the man’s swiftly shifting emotional states both plausible and riveting.
Posthumus is rapturously in love when the play begins, but his faith in his wife’s fidelity is almost instantly converted to disbelief. Mr. Cerveris’s delivery of the speech that follows this conversion, an Othello-esque aria of abuse against women, is hair-raising. But so too is his anguish when we next meet him, plagued by remorse at the thought that Imogen is dead. And when, in the final act, Posthumus receives a healing visit from the god Jupiter — who arrives on a giant gold eagle, no less — it seems wholly appropriate, a form of therapy perfectly befitting the depth of his suffering.
For anyone who follows New York theater, one of the pleasures of the past two seasons has been witnessing the extraordinary mid-career blossoming of Martha Plimpton. After her single scene of stunning anger and desperation in "Shining City," she brought vigorous passions to two distinct 19th-century Russian women in "The Coast of Utopia." Her besotted Helena this year in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was like a classic screwball turn, so alive with helter-skelter feelings she was invigoratingly close to insanity. Her Imogen in Lincoln Center's sumptuous "Cymbeline" is more complex and more complete -- the intensity of her love and pain, her exaltation and sorrow anchored by a clear-eyed intelligence that makes her nobody's fool.
If not everything in Mark Lamos' production quite matches the exquisite depth and scope of Plimpton's characterization, the fault lies more in this late problem play than in the work of the director or his generally accomplished cast. Unswerving in her fidelity, Imogen may be Shakespeare's most mature heroine, but she's been given an unsteady showcase.
Thick with complicated plot, "Cymbeline" bulges with an imprudent heaping of familiar Bardic ingredients -- outcast noblemen, lost sons, mistaken identities, duplicitous seductions, temporary death induced by potion, a damsel disguised as a boy, a king blind to treachery, a cad turned instantly honorable and spectral messengers appearing in a dream.
Then there's that improbably happy ending, resolved not via action but with a series of hurried explications, providing repentance or forgiveness for all but the wickedest characters, already conveniently dispatched offstage. Bouncing between tragedy, comedy, history, myth and romance, the play's great challenge is to create fluid, cohesive drama from such a flavorsome but lumpy stew.
Lamos partly solves the problem of unity and flow with the help of a superb design team that makes majestic use of the vast Beaumont stage. Set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting wizard Brian MacDevitt encase the unruly play, full of twists as surreally nonsensical as they are soapy, in a kind of magical, golden jewel box, while Jess Goldstein's costumes vibrantly combine period formality with bold strokes of unconventional design flair.
When Lamos attempts to impose order on the chaotic play, the results can be a little stiff, particularly in the heavily expository first act. He opens with a ceremonial procession that recalls the RSC's recent "King Lear," but serves here to centralize the eponymous Brit monarch who otherwise is marginal to the action. Giving this Cymbeline further claim to the play's title is the lovely balance in John Cullum's performance between stern authority and endearing confusion. But despite many passages of delicate beauty and wit, the play initially shuffles rather than glides along, showing that this is a work not easily tamed.
That changes in act two (the original five acts are divided by a single intermission) when the heartsick Imogen, disguised as a boy aptly named Fidele, stumbles into the Welsh forest where she meets a banished lord (Paul O'Brien) and the two boys he has raised as his own (David Furr, Gregory Wooddell), who are actually Cymbeline's long-lost sons. Yeargan lowers down a maze of gilded columns from the flies that make this classic Shakespearian rustic interlude truly enchanted and from there, the production grows increasingly more assured.
Beautifully played, in addition to Plimpton, by O'Brien, Furr and Wooddell, the instant bonding of these characters is conveyed with such disarming warmth and humanity it helps ground the story's giddier elements in deeper feeling. The love and loss expressed by Imogen and her exiled husband Posthumus (Michael Cerveris), tricked into believing she has betrayed him, resonate strongly, as does the ultimate joy of their reunion.
The play's original final act has long been criticized for its maddening convolutedness, not least by George Bernard Shaw, who rewrote his own streamlined version of it. But Lamos embraces all the talk and plays it straight, never pushing too hard for the humor in the preposterously tidy conclusion but finding it just as surely as he finds the scene's tenderness.
That sincerity is echoed by some of the key cast, notably Cerveris, who continues to stray from musical roles and test his classical chops after playing Kent in the Public's "King Lear" earlier this year, making a soulfully tormented Posthumus.
John Pankow is strong as his good-hearted servant; Richard Topol and Daniel Breaker do an elegant job with their reams of dialogue, playing two gents that serve as narrators; and Herb Foster scores the play's funniest moment as a court doctor struggling to bring the befuddled king up to speed.
The evildoers are less satisfying. As Italian stallion Iachimo, engaged in a wager with Posthumus to test Imogen's fidelity, Brit actor Jonathan Cake cuts a hunky figure strutting around shirtless in ruched trousers. But his smugness makes the character's already unlikely transition harder to swallow.
Phylicia Rashad's scheming queen is all narrowed eyes and conspiratorial asides, as if she's channeling Diahann Carroll as Dominique Devereaux on "Dynasty." And Adam Dannheisser stops just short of twirling his mustache as her villainous son Cloten ("a thing too bad for bad report"), whom the queen hoped to marry off to Imogen. While the audience seemed to lap it up, his over-the-top antics wore thin with this reviewer.
But good prevails in the production just as it does in the roller-coaster romance (last seen on Broadway in 1923). The staging's many strengths aside, Plimpton alone is reason enough to recommend it, delivering in abundance Imogen's charm, resourcefulness and fortitude. With her pixieish features, the actress even makes a halfway convincing lad. The ability of her humble Fidele to touch not only his forest companions but the Roman general (Ezra Knight) who takes the "boy" under his wing make the rich character a vessel of masculine loyalty as well as womanly fealty.