Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Golden lads and girls

To be fair, Cymbeline is a disjointed play, even on the page. It feels as though Shakespeare, well into the obtuse, experimental, tragicomic late phase of his writing career, threw everything in just to see what the result would be. The plot is so overburdened with Shakespearean tropes -- disguises, cross-dressing, multiple identities, banished courtiers, a villainous queen, a slandered maiden, chance encounters and strange portents -- that at times it seems arch and self-parodic. The final product is puzzling, to say the least, but deliciously so; it's moving, suspenseful and hilarious, sometimes simultaneously. Unfortunately, in putting together the present production at Lincoln Center, Mark Lamos employed a directorial approach that echoes the script's unevenness. Rather than pulling the play's disparate elements together into something coherent, he has compounded the problem: not only do the characters not seem to live in the same world; the actors don't even seem to be performing in the same play.

In some corners, the production goes for a broadly whimsical, fairy-tale-like tone. Jess Goldstein's bright, colorful costumes seem to set the play in the ahistorical, vaguely medieval world of fairy-tale royalty -- except for the Roman soldiers, who look like they stepped out of a biblical drama, and their Soothsayer, dressed like The Lion King's Rafiki. But the fairy-tale atmosphere is dominant, and a few of the performances, most notably Phylicia Rashad's scheming queen, complete the effect. Say what you will about television actors onstage; you must admit, Phylicia Rashad never phones it in. (Said my companion, at intermission: "She doesn't even know phones have been invented.") It's probably not fair to call her a "television actor," since she's done plenty of theatre -- and I was impressed by her Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean a few seasons ago. I'm not sure she's completely up to the challenge of Shakespeare -- she seems to be still playing the Witch from Into the Woods -- but it's not entirely her fault that the other performances don't match hers in tone or breadth (or sheer oddness). At least that sensibility seems to run in the onstage family: as the queen's son, the hilariously hissable Cloten, Adam Dannheisser steals every scene he's in. By the second half, you can feel the audience brighten every time Cloten steps onstage and deflate when one of the less colorful heroes shoos him away. Yes, we know we're supposed to be rooting for Posthumus, but Cloten is so much more fun! And when (SPOILER ALERT) Guiderius rushes onstage brandishing Cloten's bloody head, the triumph of the moment, and the humorousness of the image, is blunted by the palpable disappointment that ripples through the audience. Everyone had almost forgotten the play was not called Cloten, Son to th' Queen.

This imbalance is enhanced by John Cullum's retiring presence as the actual title character. He makes so weak an impression that, when the focus of the (lengthy) final scene is suddenly on Cymbeline, you wonder why he's doing all the talking. The play's true hero, Posthumus Leonatus, is played by Michael Cerveris in a truly terrible wig (worse than his shiny bald head? Probably not), intensely serious as ever, spitting all over the stage and twisting his face into his patented "carsick" expression. It's not a bad performance, but it's not likable enough to make you root for him over his rivals -- the buffoonish Cloten and the villainous Iachimo, played with arresting confidence by Jonathan Cake. I was surprised by how good I thought Cake was here, because I thought he was absolutely dreadful opposite Fiona Shaw in Medea. (Nobody but Shaw came out of that show looking good, in my opinion.) He more than holds his own here, and even if he didn't, his native British accent gives him an advantage over his costars, and his astonishing, beefcakey physicality is worth the price of the ticket all by itself. Cymbeline calls for a number of special effects ("Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle," what?), but nothing in this production is as memorable as Cake's shirtlessness.

With Iachimo and Cloten as competition, Leonatus never seems worth cheering for. Nor is he a completely worthy match for Imogen, as played by Martha Plimpton. She's the one actor in the company who seems totally comfortable with the language, and makes it totally lucid for the audience; when Imogen is speaking, you never have to think about translating what she says. It's a sincere, accomplished performance that brings the words to the forefront, and it made me ache to see Cymbeline performed by a tight ensemble company that might illuminate the text more fully. (Dear Propeller: Please come back!)

Also worthy of mention: John Pankow, whose gentle, naturalistic portrayal of Pisanio came very close to wiping the memory of Ira Buchman from my mind; David Furr, intense and sincere as Guiderius-now-called-Polydore; and Herb Foster, who had the kind of presence in his few scenes as Cornelius that it would have been nice to see from John Cullum as Cymbeline. Individually, most of the performances are fine; they just don't come together in any discernible way. It seems as though everyone rehearsed individually, or perhaps honed their performances in other productions and then brought them together as a kind of stunt. Everything about the production is similarly schizophrenic -- not just the costumes, as noted above, but also the the overall tone. Is the battle scene meant to be taken seriously? What about the Jupiter-descending dream? And whose idea was it to present the ghosts of Posthumus's family as enormous, Basil Twist-y puppets? I laughed, but I had the feeling I wasn't supposed to.

On top of that, the blocking was an obstacle -- I usually find the thrust stage of the Vivian Beaumont allows for an intimacy you don't often get on Broadway. But in this case, the disunity of the overall production is present even within individual performances, which seem fractured because only about a third of the audience can see the central action, or the speaker's face, at any given time. This also makes a lot of the dialogue difficult to hear, a particular problem given that it's Shakespeare at his least familiar and most complex.

This Cymbeline is still worth seeing; it's enjoyable, if seldom relevatory. You can't really appreciate the twisted tragicomedy of this play's latter half -- in particular, the scene where the heroine, disguised as a boy and believed dead, awakens to find herself lying next to the headless corpse of her stepbrother, which is dressed in her husband's clothes -- until you see it onstage and drink in the confusion of the audience around you. Reading the play, you can wonder whether, listening to the "Fear No More" elegy, you ought to be touched by its pathos, amused by its puns, or simply tickled by the absurdity of it all. But you can't really work it out until you experience it as part of an audience. The problem in this case is that the actors don't seem to know what effect they're going for, either -- the play lacks the cohesion it needs to work its magic. The Soothsayer comes close to articulating what the director ought to do when he proclaims, at the end, "The fingers of the powers above do tune/The harmony of this peace." A surer touch from those fingers would have helped a great deal. If you get a chance to see a solid ensemble company put on Cymbeline, by all means, take advantage of it. In the meantime, you could do worse than see this one. And after all, it is, in a sense, a Christmas play, and not a bad way to "abide the change of time,/ Quake in the present winter's state, and wish/ That warmer days would come."

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