For anyone who follows New York theater, one of the pleasures of the past two seasons has been witnessing the extraordinary mid-career blossoming of Martha Plimpton. After her single scene of stunning anger and desperation in “Shining City,” she brought vigorous passions to two distinct 19th-century Russian women in “The Coast of Utopia.” Her besotted Helena this year in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was like a classic screwball turn, so alive with helter-skelter feelings she was invigoratingly close to insanity. Her Imogen in Lincoln Center’s sumptuous “Cymbeline” is more complex and more complete — the intensity of her love and pain, her exaltation and sorrow anchored by a clear-eyed intelligence that makes her nobody’s fool.
If not everything in Mark Lamos’ production quite matches the exquisite depth and scope of Plimpton’s characterization, the fault lies more in this late problem play than in the work of the director or his generally accomplished cast. Unswerving in her fidelity, Imogen may be Shakespeare’s most mature heroine, but she’s been given an unsteady showcase.
Thick with complicated plot, “Cymbeline” bulges with an imprudent heaping of familiar Bardic ingredients — outcast noblemen, lost sons, mistaken identities, duplicitous seductions, temporary death induced by potion, a damsel disguised as a boy, a king blind to treachery, a cad turned instantly honorable and spectral messengers appearing in a dream.
Then there’s that improbably happy ending, resolved not via action but with a series of hurried explications, providing repentance or forgiveness for all but the wickedest characters, already conveniently dispatched offstage. Bouncing between tragedy, comedy, history, myth and romance, the play’s great challenge is to create fluid, cohesive drama from such a flavorsome but lumpy stew.
Lamos partly solves the problem of unity and flow with the help of a superb design team that makes majestic use of the vast Beaumont stage. Set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting wizard Brian MacDevitt encase the unruly play, full of twists as surreally nonsensical as they are soapy, in a kind of magical, golden jewel box, while Jess Goldstein’s costumes vibrantly combine period formality with bold strokes of unconventional design flair.
When Lamos attempts to impose order on the chaotic play, the results can be a little stiff, particularly in the heavily expository first act. He opens with a ceremonial procession that recalls the RSC’s recent “King Lear,” but serves here to centralize the eponymous Brit monarch who otherwise is marginal to the action. Giving this Cymbeline further claim to the play’s title is the lovely balance in John Cullum’s performance between stern authority and endearing confusion. But despite many passages of delicate beauty and wit, the play initially shuffles rather than glides along, showing that this is a work not easily tamed.
That changes in act two (the original five acts are divided by a single intermission) when the heartsick Imogen, disguised as a boy aptly named Fidele, stumbles into the Welsh forest where she meets a banished lord (Paul O’Brien) and the two boys he has raised as his own (David Furr, Gregory Wooddell), who are actually Cymbeline’s long-lost sons. Yeargan lowers down a maze of gilded columns from the flies that make this classic Shakespearian rustic interlude truly enchanted and from there, the production grows increasingly more assured.
Beautifully played, in addition to Plimpton, by O’Brien, Furr and Wooddell, the instant bonding of these characters is conveyed with such disarming warmth and humanity it helps ground the story’s giddier elements in deeper feeling. The love and loss expressed by Imogen and her exiled husband Posthumus (Michael Cerveris), tricked into believing she has betrayed him, resonate strongly, as does the ultimate joy of their reunion.
The play’s original final act has long been criticized for its maddening convolutedness, not least by George Bernard Shaw, who rewrote his own streamlined version of it. But Lamos embraces all the talk and plays it straight, never pushing too hard for the humor in the preposterously tidy conclusion but finding it just as surely as he finds the scene’s tenderness.
That sincerity is echoed by some of the key cast, notably Cerveris, who continues to stray from musical roles and test his classical chops after playing Kent in the Public’s “King Lear” earlier this year, making a soulfully tormented Posthumus.
John Pankow is strong as his good-hearted servant; Richard Topol and Daniel Breaker do an elegant job with their reams of dialogue, playing two gents that serve as narrators; and Herb Foster scores the play’s funniest moment as a court doctor struggling to bring the befuddled king up to speed.
The evildoers are less satisfying. As Italian stallion Iachimo, engaged in a wager with Posthumus to test Imogen’s fidelity, Brit actor Jonathan Cake cuts a hunky figure strutting around shirtless in ruched trousers. But his smugness makes the character’s already unlikely transition harder to swallow.
Phylicia Rashad’s scheming queen is all narrowed eyes and conspiratorial asides, as if she’s channeling Diahann Carroll as Dominique Devereaux on “Dynasty.” And Adam Dannheisser stops just short of twirling his mustache as her villainous son Cloten (“a thing too bad for bad report”), whom the queen hoped to marry off to Imogen. While the audience seemed to lap it up, his over-the-top antics wore thin with this reviewer.
But good prevails in the production just as it does in the roller-coaster romance (last seen on Broadway in 1923). The staging’s many strengths aside, Plimpton alone is reason enough to recommend it, delivering in abundance Imogen’s charm, resourcefulness and fortitude. With her pixieish features, the actress even makes a halfway convincing lad. The ability of her humble Fidele to touch not only his forest companions but the Roman general (Ezra Knight) who takes the “boy” under his wing make the rich character a vessel of masculine loyalty as well as womanly fealty.