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A CurtainUp Review

By Macey Levin

An exhilarating dichotomy is onstage at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the current offering of William Shakespeare's Cymbeline presented by the Theatre for a New Audience. The play creaks, but the production soars. Though the piece does not possess the power of his more celebrated plays, the staging and the performances disregard the weaknesses and reinvent the work into an enriching theatrical experience.

There is a reason that Cymbeline is seldom revived. It feels as if it had been put together with the Elizabethan version of spit and chewing gum. The play is episodic with characters of varying credibility and situations that strain credulity. In addition, the word "coincidence" seems to have been invented for this play. Written during the latter part of his career, Cymbeline steals from a number of Shakespeare's other works including King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Othello and all those comedies where the heroine disguises herself as a male. There is even a small taste of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Though Shakespeare wrote the play in his romantic period, which includes The Tempest and Measure for Measure, it lacks the strong unity of these other works. The structure is somewhat scattershot and the characters do not have the depth nor the history to lend them a sense of truth. The play is sometimes regarded as a fantasy or fairy tale, but the characters should be grounded in a reality that induces the audience's commitment to their adventures and travails.

The title itself is imprecise. Cymbeline as king has very little to do with the plot and does not make a contribution to the work until the last scene, and even then he is subject to the events rather than influencing them. Conversely, in Julius Caesar, though the emperor is slain midway through the play, his spirit overshadows the lives of the several protagonists.

The plot of of Cymbeline, centered on the search by Imogen, the king's daughter, for her banished husband, Posthumus, is replete with forged identities, poisons, vendettas, ghosts, great battles and bloody deeds performed in the name of honor. The play does use Shakespeare's recurring theme of loss, reconciliation and just punishments and rewards.

The hodge-podge nature of the plot is used by director Bartlett Sher to create a production of great wit and visual delight. The collections of characters are represented by varied costuming, designed by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, from the rich reds of the royal party, including the samurai garb of Cloten, to the western togs of the banished Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus, the kidnapped sons of Cymbeline. The stylized snowstorm that engulfs Imogen and Pisanio as they journey to Wales, and the Queen's scene in her gardens are theatrically exciting and enchanting in their simplicity. The production is crowned by delightfully incongruous endings of each act.

Characters play musical instruments arrayed on the sides of the stage, and often serve as prop men a la the Japanese Noh plays. A step unit serves as a mountainous tor and, ironically, steps. Christopher Akerlind, who designed the clever sets, shows similar creative techniques in his light design.

The trappings of the production almost outweigh the general excellence of the acting. The entire cast carries the sometimes tongue-in-cheek tone created by director Sher. Erica N. Tazel's strikingly lovely Imogen strengthens as she braves the world and is victimized by her wicked stepmother, the queen, played deliciously by Randy Danson. The evil Iachimo of Boris McGiver could be more sinister, but he is, nonetheless, a delightful villain. Michael Stuhlbarg is, at first, somewhat soft as Posthumus, but as he goes forth to avenge his honor the character gains in strength.

Earl Hindman, Pete Starrett and Roderick Hill infuse their cowboy carriage and mannerisms into Shakespeare's dialogue lending their line delivery a natural flow. Cloten is in the wonderful hands and talents of Andrew Weems. His over-the-top performance makes the whining, sycophantic, manic prince an endearing creature. The production is held together by the presence of two storytellers-Philip Goodwin and Thomas M. Hammond-serving as various characters, prop men, musicians and the unifying force of the production. They are continually present, but never intrusive.

But the strength of the production is in Sher's vision and control. At no time does the unfolding of the story flag, though there are scenes and speeches that could be judiciously excised. The stage pictures are consistently interesting and exciting, even on this rather bare playing area. The characters, though skeletal in development, are strong and demand attention. Sher mixes wit, theatricality and a sense of drama. Though Shakespeare's work presents some mighty obstacles, the production serves the play and, importantly, the audience.

Playwright: William Shakespeare
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Cast: Randy Danson, Philip Goodwin, Thomas M. Hammond, Roderick Hill, Earl Hindman, Peter Francis James, Wayne Kasserman, Ezra Knight, Boris McGiver, Sophia Salguero, Pete Starrett, Robert Stattel, Michael Stuhlbarg, Erica N. Tazel, Andrew Weems
Set and Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Costume Design: Elizabeth Caitlin Ward
Composer/Sound Design: Peter John Still
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, 212-239-6200
Previews 1/15-1/19; opened 1/20; closes 2/24.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 (no perf. 1/29 and 30; 2/5 and 6; add Sun. eves 2/17 and 24 at 7:00) Free symposia 2/2 and 9 after matinee perfs.)
Running time: 3 hours and 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $55.00; student and group rates (212-229-2810 ext.10) available
Reviewed by Macey Levin based on 1/25 performance
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