nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 14, 2007
One of the ensemble members in Lincoln Center Theater's Cymbeline—he amounts to a supernumerary, having no lines as far as I could tell—stands around in the court scenes dressed to the nines in a full-length fur-lined cloak. Why? I have no idea...which turns out to be the answer to the larger question of why one of Shakespeare's deservedly less-well-known plays has been given the deluxe star treatment by NYC's biggest nonprofit theatre company. I had hoped that director Mark Lamos would supply a reason, or at least a consistent point of view. But in this production—the appropriate label really is fiasco—very little makes sense or serves a purpose, or indeed shows any of the talented artists involved to advantage.
I will leave you to peruse, if you care/need to, this synopsis of the play (with spoilers!).
The piece is specifically set at the time of Augustus Caesar, but Jess Goldstein's costumes feel mostly of Shakespeare's own time (jarring exception: the first scene in Rome takes place in a sauna, with the men decked out in oversized white bath towels). Michael Yeargan's set, whose dominant color is gold, is lovely to look at and does all kinds of tricks—entranceways slide back and forth across the stage, and stuff pops up out of trapdoors and floats down from the ceiling, including a dazzling array of pillars that serve as stylized trees for the scenes in the forest. Brian MacDevitt's lighting is either very very dark or very very bright, and Mel Marvin's original music is portentous and obvious. Lamos frequently fills the stage with troops of soldiers or courtiers bearing flags and banners, so that the show sometimes feels like it wishes to be Camelot (does John Cullum, in the title role, wish it too?—I kept thinking every time I saw him how much I'd rather see him as King Arthur than as King Cymbeline).
None of these elements cohere in any kind of sensible way; ditto the performances, which range from the ludicrous (Cullum and Phylicia Rashad, as his queen, savor the sonorousness of Shakespeare's language, rolling their r's and spitting out their t's with a mannered ferocity that reminded me of Harvey Korman's Alfred Lunt parody on the old Carol Burnett Show) to the overwrought (Jonathan Cake as Iachimo and Michael Cerveris as Posthumus chew so much metaphorical scenery that they must suffer from bloat every night) to the technically inept (Martha Plimpton's Imogen, not necessarily poorly conceived, is inaudible every time she turns her back to you and incomprehensible much of the rest of the time) to the scene-stealingly hammy (Adam Dannheisser pleases the crowd by wringing every possible laugh and then some from mock-villain Cloten).
Interestingly, Dannheisser's is the only performance that feels of a piece with anything else; it certainly matches the foolish ending, here played strictly for yucks as character after character announces yet another coincidence that will tie up the sprawling threads of Cymbeline's plot. But what's the value, or point, of making fun of a second-rate Shakespeare play? The ending teaches us that people with noble blood flowing through their veins deserve to be in power (unless they're downright evil, like Rashad's Queen, who is right out of "Snow White"); the play concludes with England paying tribute to the Romans even though they've defeated them in battle (huh?) and honoring the gods of their pagan enemies (again, huh?).
Which reminds me: there's a big unwieldy apparition scene near the end (usually cut, I think) featuring giant puppet-headed ghosts of Posthumus's family; and then there's this soothsayer guy from Rome who is decked out like a witch doctor.
On some level, all of this seemingly random theatrical artifice works as entertainment, but at three hours this Cymbeline is a long haul, especially in its lengthier second act. If Lamos had ever shown me why I should care about these cartoonish characters or this convoluted play, it might have been worth it. But this mishmash is mostly a waste of time—mine and the artists'—and only confirms what I suspected when LCT announced Cymbeline in the first place, which is why on earth this company would choose to lavish its ample but nonetheless relatively scarce resources on a play that clearly doesn't deserve them. Let the young nonprofits twiddle with Cymbeline; we need our major ones to give the city drama it can't find anywhere else. Onward to South Pacific.