“He keeps writing these plays where dads get their daughters back,” says Lily Rabe about Shakespeare in the program notes to Cymbeline at the Delacorte. She’s talking about the late romances, and except for The Tempest, where everybody else is lost except the daughter, she’s right. It’s all about dads and daughters in these plays.
It’s also all about a mode of storytelling that can easily be dismissed as primitive or archetypal, and can best be visualized by thinking of a Shakespearean comedy as a house that’s mostly reality except for a room labeled FOLK TALE, and a Shakespearean romance as a house that’s mostly folk tale except for a room labeled REALITY. And in a house like that, architecture defines function. If we take Cymbeline seriously, the plot complications require so much heavy lifting that the play collapses under the weight of its own improbabilities. The trick is to do the opposite, so that it becomes serious in flashes, like lightning in fairyland. Ground this play and it will sink without a trace; give it wings, and it will have a chance to soar when, like Chesterton’s angels, it takes itself lightly.
This production has that lightness. It doesn’t just accept the fact that the play is barely dipping a couple of toes into the shallow end of the real world—it flaunts it. After all, when one of the major characters doesn’t even have a name (the Queen), we are in a country where function follows form—she’s the Queen and an evil stepmother, which is what you need to know because it’s what the plot requires.
And is there a ton and a half of plot here or what? It’s like three years of Days of Our Lives compressed into three hours. How do you make something like that work?
Director Daniel Sullivan does it by making the artificiality part of the visual premise. The set is a frame within a frame, with the title of the play in big bold letters, surrounded by props, statues, and packing boxes on which have been stenciled the names of other Shakespeare plays. There’s a small orchestra in the back wearing modern tuxedos, and the stage is flanked on one side by a photo of a World War I tank and on the other by David’s Napoleon Crossing The Alps, as befitting a play where pre-Christian Britain is just a shipwreck away from Renaissance Rome.
The opening sets the tone. Instead of the usual Oskar Eustis pre-recording, we get a couple of actors dressed as ushers delivering pretty much the same speech live, with the rest of the cast sitting upstage watching them, which does a lot to make the speech feel communal and celebratory. (Throughout the rest of the evening, there will always be at least one actor back there watching the action.) There’s also a delightful bit where Raul Esparza whips out his cellphone to take a cast selfie, and the admonition is: “Don’t be like 4-time Tony nominee Raul Esparza; shut off your cellphones.” Not only did it do the trick, but it made me anticipate an upcoming anachronism which (sadly) never happened. (See below.)
These same ushers spent most of the pre-show chatting up two sections of on-stage audience, and when the play begins with its extended expository scene between two gentlemen, pre-selected audience members stand and deliver statements or ask questions on cue, reinforcing the fact that this is not a play which anyone should be taking very seriously.
Plus everybody in the cast doubles, which is like holding up a big neon sign that says LOOK AT HOW WE’RE PRESENTING THIS instead of LOOK AT WHO WE ARE. The chief joy in all this is watching Hamish Linklater play both the bad guy (Cloten) and the good guy (Leonatus). Linklater rules as Cloten. In a blond Moe Howard wig and with a Dumb And Dumber Jim Carey manner, he makes every Cloten line feel like it’s from the Shakespearean version of English As She Is Spoke. His Leonatus is nowhere near as memorable, but then it’s hard to play someone who switches back and forth between blind trust and blind rage and not make him look like an idiot. Even though he's in good company—because this play is full of idiots. Everyone talks about seeing, and is always deceived. Only the audience sees it all; and this too creates distance, like a third frame around the action.
Raul Esparza’s Iachimo is a delight. Sleek and sharp, he puits the rat in Rat Pack, and gets the drinking song from Antony and Cleopatra as his entrance, during which he does a torrid little dance number with a waitress who on closer examination turns out to be Lily Rabe in a silver-lame minidress and Anna Karina wig. Sleek to the eye and slimy to the touch, the role of Iachimo fits Esparza like a glove with brass knuckles; his scene with Imogen is one of the high points of the show.
And Lily Rabe, as Imogen, gets to channel a moment from pretty much every Shakespearean heroine she’s portrayed so far for the Public. But it’s a hard role. Imogen reacts, she doesn’t initiate. At best, she’s the plot’s sparring partner; at worst, its punching bag. (Part of me thinks that, whoever the chief boy actor was in the King’s Men around 1611, he had nowhere near the talent of 1600’s boy actor; and another part of me thinks that, even if he was the most talented actor alive, Shakespeare wanted him to play those dad-renounced daughters as victims of their fate rather than the masters of it
So no—this is not your moving or emotionally-engaging Cymbeline, and its relentless playfulness might just annoy the hell out of anyone who comes to it expecting to be swept off her feet. But if you like what the Fiasco Theater has been doing with Shakespeare lately, then you’ll kick yourself if you miss it.
Oh—and than potential anachronism I mentioned? In the bedroom scene, where Iachimo is taking notes on his surroundings, I half-expected Esparza to whip out that cellphone again and take naked selfies of Imogen—it would have been sublimely perfect, because we all believe it when we see a picture of it, right? Ah well. Maybe next Cymbeline.