Monday, August 10, 2015

Fear No More, for Shakespeare in the Park Has Done It Again

Review: Cymbeline

Hamish Linklater as the oafish Cloten and Lily Rabe as the pure-hearted Imogen in Shakespeare in the Park's latest production of William Shakespeare's Cymbeline.

Director Daniel Sullivan and actors Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater have become beloved staples of the Public Theatre's annual productions at Central Park's Delacorte Theatre, tackling some of Shakespeare's greatest works with an unfailing dedication to excellence. This season the three acclaimed artists have teamed up for a pared-down version of Shakespeare's late career romance Cymbeline, and the results are quintessential Shakespeare in the Park: superbly acted, highly accessible, and fully embracing the open air setting for an evening of theatrical magic.

One of the Bard's less performed works, Cymbeline is actually the story of the title character's daughter, Princess Imogen. Against her father's wishes, Imogen has married a commoner named Posthumus Leonatus, a move which so outrages King Cymbeline that he banishes Posthumus to Italy. With Posthumus out of the way, the Queen - who is not Imogen's mother but Cymbeline's second wife - attempts to secure her family's royal position by marrying her loutish son Cloten to the princess, who despises him. Meanwhile, Posthumus makes a wager with the boastful Italian Iachimo that Imogen's heart is so pure it is incorruptible, leading Iachimo to travel to England and attempt to seduce the fair princess. There is also a subplot involving a war between Rome and Britain over unpaid monetary tributes, not to mention the mystery of Cymbeline's missing sons.

The plot is one of the most complex in all of Shakespeare, but thanks to Sullivan's expert direction and uniformly strong performances from the cast, this Cymbeline is easy to follow even without the benefit of the synopsis included in the program. This high level of accessibility is even more impressive given Sullivan's decision to double and triple cast most of his ensemble of 9 to fill the play's 16+ speaking roles. Smart costuming by David Zinn and distinctive hair and wig designs by Charles G. LaPointe combine with the physical malleability of the cast so that there is never any confusion over who is playing whom and when, adding to the production's magical quality and the evening's general sense of fun.

Rabe has tackled many of Shakespeare's most famous ingĂ©nues during her time in the park, and her Imogen is every bit the equal to her Portia and her Beatrice from seasons past. Rabe instantly commands the stage with her unmistakably regal presence, bringing an inner fire to Imogen while at the same time keeping the character's melodramatic leanings in check. When Rabe espouses the play's many rich and varied declarations of love she is utterly believable, and her sincerity grounds a work filled to the brim with credibility-straining coincidences. The luminescent actress can also access deep reserves of sorrow at the drop of a hat, crying giant, glistening tears during several of the production's more heart-wrenching moments.

Rabe's real-life partner Linklater tackles the dual roles of Imogen's exiled husband Posthumus and her unwanted suitor Cloten. As Posthumus, Linklater is an appealing romantic lead who is also capable of portraying the deep-seated rage that propels the character's actions through much of the second half (like Othello, Posthumus is a tad too quick to believe the worst about his wife). But Linklater's true showcase and the actor's clear favorite is the impossibly dim Cloten, who he plays to hammy perfection. Linklater fills Cloten's scenes with side-splittingly funny business while finding every conceivable joke in the character's dialogue, and his over the top rendition of "Hark, Hark the Lark" is one of the evening's highlights. (All the play's original music is provided by Next to Normal composer Tom Kitt, who offers work as strong and melodically interesting as any he's written for the musical stage.)

Patrick Page is wonderfully imposing as the title character, tiptoeing right up to the line of absurdity without actually crossing it. Kate Burton is suitably despicable as his second wife, clearly having a blast with the Queen's conniving ways. The surprise with Burton is that she is perhaps even more entertaining and convincing as Belarius, the disgraced nobleman who has been secretly raising Cymbeline's missing sons for the past twenty years. Four time Tony-nominee Raul Esparza struggles to find the right balance between Iachimo's smarmy, off-putting personality and the play's comedic leanings, failing to find the humor in his character's introductory scene and generally being a bit too terrible of a person for audiences to fully surrender to the evening's many charms. It is by no means a bad performance, but with Sullivan and the rest of his cast choosing to highlight the text's humor Esparza stands out in the wrong way.

After 53 summers at the Delacorte, Shakespeare in the Park has become a New York institution, bringing high quality productions of some of the greatest works in the theatrical cannon to the populace free of charge. Cymbeline is yet another triumph for director Sullivan and lead actors Rabe and Linklater, proving that this trio can work their magic on the Bard's more problematic plays just as easily as they can on populist classics like Much Ado About Nothing or The Merchant of Venice. Despite the intricate plot, this production is a marvel of accessible clarity without once sacrificing the complexities of Shakespeare's beautiful language or his observations on human nature, and is highly recommended for both Shakespearean scholars and the layperson alike.

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