Like Hytner’s “Twelfth Night,” Andrei Serban’s production is marked by elegantly lucid staging on a set that almost outshines the action it accommodates, although designer Mark Wendland’s conception is as beautifully minimal as Bob Crowley’s was beautifully filigreed. The playing area is a mere mound of grass punctuated with a geometrically arranged quartet of trees and a circle of white sand, the latter in turn given character by a single, off-center stone. The whole is enclosed by a sweep of water, and the flora of Central Park provides a backdrop. (The feng shui up there looks to be terrific.)
The stark simplicity of the design and Serban’s staging of the play as a sort of primitive pageant, with Marina Draghici’s mixed-culture costumes being dominated by Japanese stylings, help to clarify a story whose convolutions serve to make “Cymbeline” one of the Bard’s least-often performed works. (Coincidentally, the Royal Shakespeare Co. presented it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music just a few months ago.) For example, a series of panels planted into the grass are used to indicate whether the action is taking place at the English court or in Italy — white for the former, red for the latter.
The Italian-English fracas is a mere sideline in a play with a host of more personal machinations to detail, beginning with the banishment from Britain of Posthumus (Michael Hall), a reputed paragon of a man who was secretly married to King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen (Stephanie Roth Haberle). Those nuptials angered Imogen’s stepmother, Cymbeline’s conniving queen (Hazelle Goodman), who had Imogen’s hand in mind for her loutish son Cloten (Robert Stanton).
The love between Posthumus and Imogen is tested not only by separation, for in Italy Posthumus falls into the manipulative hands of Iachimo (Liev Schreiber) , a schemer who bets Posthumus he can seduce Imogen. Claiming a victory he hasn’t achieved, Iachimo sets Posthumus on a course of retribution that will end with both lovers calling for their own deaths.
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, another banished Briton, Belarius (Randall Duk Kim), lives in a cave with Arviragus (Andrew Garman) and Guiderius (Adam Greer), Cymbeline’s sons, whom Belarius snatched as toddlers as revenge for the king’s betrayal.
It’s a dizzying concoction that poses daunting problems for a director, who must reconcile comprehensibility with subtlety. Serban opts for the former: His intention seems to be to make the play clear and accessible to the audiences in the park (anywhere in the park, you sometimes think), and so from the opening scene, many of the actors speak their lines with precise and almost exaggerated emphasis, and characters are reduced to basic conceptions.
The malevolent Cloten, for example, whose grisly end indicates Shakespeare intended him to be taken at least somewhat seriously, is reduced to a mere buffoon, a magenta-haired post-punk stooge with occasional lapses into mincing.
The model here appears to be opera (a Serban specialty), where plot contrivances and a foreign language can alienate audiences, and simplicity of effect and pointed emphasis can be helpful in cutting through the clutter. But in opera, the music tells its own story; its beauties can transcend language. In Shakespeare, the words are the music, too, so when crudeness of effect is brought to bear on the language, clarity may result, but beauty and subtlety are lost.
This is most dismayingly illustrated in Haberle’s performance as Imogen, the play’s plucky but beleaguered heroine. Haberle certainly makes apparent the rudimentary meanings of Shakespeare’s verse. She italicizes every line with wide-eyed expression, eyebrows rising to express wonder, furrowing for anger; she’s practically writing her own subtitles as she goes along. It’s an energetic performance, but one utterly lacking in nuance, grace and dignity, to say nothing of poetry. And she plays everything she can for obvious laughs.
Hall’s Posthumus begins on a similarly superficial note, petulant and self-regarding in taking offense at Iachimo’s affronts, but he develops layers of feeling as the play progresses, and Hall conveys movingly the remorse that drives Posthumus to seek self-destruction in battle.
Other performances vary in effectiveness — from Goodman’s bewitchingly sexy , teasing turn as the wicked queen to the stolid Duk Kim as Belarius and the sweetly dorky Garman and Greer as Cymbeline’s sons — but only one fully honors the complexity of character that was a hallmark of Shakespeare’s genius: Schreiber’s marvelous Iachimo.
Iachimo, a villain of such sensitive intelligence that he cannot but be pricked by the example of Imogen’s purity, has much of the play’s richest language, and Schreiber delivers it with a keen ear for its rhythm, its beauty and its sense. His soliloquy over the sleeping Imogen is intoxicating: You shudder at the combination of wickedness and sensitivity.
Through the easy gravity he brings to his complex part, Schreiber almost by himself keeps the play from devolving into a virtual farce (although he can’t save the admittedly ludicrous last scene, through which the audience chortled merrily).
It was also a stroke of brilliance to have Schreiber play the part of Jupiter , who descends to promise a change in the course of Posthumus’ fortune. For it is indeed Iachimo who sets Posthumus and Imogen on a journey toward a fuller understanding of love and fidelity. It’s the irony of this production that their travails are upstaged by Iachimo’s own internal transformations. Jupiter, it seems, was also looking out for number one.