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A CurtainUp Review
The challenge for a director is to make it all hang together, or make the messiness so entrancing that you don't care if the plots make sense or not. At Lincoln Center Theater, Mark Lamos has staged a production impressively operatic in visual terms, but lacking the charm and, yes, the occasional silliness, that would make this fantasy truly delightful.
Bowing to Lamos's concept, designer Michael Yeargan has left the Vivian Beaumont's huge thrust stage largely bare and available for stage pictures. At the court of Cymbeline, King of Britain (John Cullum), the only decoration is a pair of high, rectangular gold-rimmed doorways and a false gold proscenium, and when the action moves to the countryside, the "trees" that descend from the flies are slender gold pillars. Color comes from Jess Goldstein's lavish costumes, which provide the production with a kind of storybook richness.
All this theatrical panoply would be exciting if Lamos had brought equal directorial energy to the characters and their relationships. But only Martha Plimpton as Imogen and Michael Cerveris as Posthumus, the commoner to whom she is secretly married, stand out and imbue their roles with grace and believable passion.
Shakespeare wrote many wonderful heroines, but Imogen is one of his most unique, and one of the most challenging for an actor. For Imogen is almost too good to be true: innocent, smart, loyal, and forgiving despite apparent evidence that her husband has betrayed her.
If the play is to work, Imogen must be so genuine and loving that she wins our admiration and affection. The actor must also accomplish one of the hardest scenes in the theater: waking up beside the headless corpse of a man she assumes (mistakenly) to be her husband, embracing him and grieving intensely.
Last summer, playing Helena in the Public Theater's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Central Park, Plimpton showed herself to be an adept Shakespearean actor. Her Helena was part tomboy, part defiant lover; her Imogen is all generous and devoted wife, but with enough of an edge to make the character intelligent and dimensional. Waking up beside the body of her supposedly dead husband, Plimpton's Imogen grieves deeply as recognition slowly dawns upon her, with none of the histrionics that would belie the truthfulness the moment requires.
Similarly, Cerveris proves genuinely touching as Posthumus, who ultimately repents that he ever doubted his wife. The rest of the cast, however, wrestle with their parts like actors who haven't received much direction.
Once upon a time Cymbeline was produced so infrequently that a director had free rein to do whatever he or she desired without much concern that audiences--or critics--would have seen another production they could cite for comparison.
The unusually high number of productions within the last ten years undercuts that bit of theater lore. Compared to the RSC's 1998 production staged by Adrian Noble (it visited BAM that season), Lamos's staging at Lincoln Center is remarkably tame. Noble explored both the fantastical and the dark sides of the play. Cloten, for instance, was both a hilarious clod and a boor who almost rapes Imogen, and Iachimo was considerably more evil than Jonathan Cake's portrayal at Lincoln Center.
But Lamos does at least take advantage of one of the play's more marvelous moments: Jupiter (Daniel Oreskes) descending to earth astride an enormous eagle. As the gold eagle descends, its wings extending nearly the width of the Beaumont's stage, Lamos fashions a truly magical, fairytale event--the kind that only theater can create.
Editor's Note. Curtainup has followed the upswing in Cymbeline productions. Following are links to the reviews: surprisingly frequent productions:
Cymbeline/Shakespeare-(London, Cheek By Jowl, 2007
Cymbeline/ Emma Rice adaptation (London - 2007)
Cymbeline/Shakespeare (TNFA 2002)
Cymbeline/Shakespeare (BAM 2002)
Cymbeline (New Jersey 2006)