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Mark Lamos serves up a visually stunning if slightly uneven production of William Shakespeare's late-period romance. logo
John Cullum, Michael Cerveris, and Martha Plimpton
in Cymbeline
(© Paul Kolnik)
Forget about the budget-bloating helicopter that roared in at a crucial moment in Miss Saigon. In Mark Lamos' extravagant production of William Shakespeare's Cymbeline, now at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, an even more impressive and unexpected flying object arrives to offer one of the characters a thrilling climactic reprieve. As an object to woo the senses, it's only one of a series of awesome elements that distinguish this uneven but ultimately quite worthwhile go at the Bard's late-period romance, set in a kingdom in a faraway world that's meant to be Britain.

With Cymbeline, Shakespeare (or whoever wrote it) cut swaths of material from previous works as disparate as Othello, Macbeth, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream to tell the tale of King Cymbeline (John Cullum), whose independent-minded daughter Imogen (Martha Plimpton) has married the bold but poor Posthumus Leonatus (Michael Cerveris) instead of the preening Lord Cloten (Adam Dannheisser), the son of the king's scheming second wife (Phylicia Rashad). Imogen's regal chutzpah results in Posthumus being exiled to Italy, where he rashly provokes trouble-making Iachimo (Jonathan Cake) into attempting an unsuccessful seduction of the faithful Imogen.

In a twinkling, Imogen, Posthumus, Cloten and others have hied themselves to the real and metaphorical woods where the King's long-lost sons, Guiderius (David Furr) and Arviragus (Gregory Wooddell), have been raised to manly manhood by court exile Belarius (Paul O'Brien). There, all sorts of problems -- including a headless body that Imogen (now dressed as a boy) takes to be Posthumus -- beset the agitated crew before all is settled peacefully. It needs to be made absolutely clear that if Cymbeline puts in any bid for greatness, it involves the emphasis Shakespeare places on forgiveness as one of humanity's valuable legacies. This isn't a theme to be sneezed at during any historical period, including our own.

Still, there's a lot here for a playwright to cook and a director to serve in this three-hour stew. At times, Cymbeline isn't so much "romance" as melodrama; while, at other times, it could be considered that unusual dramatic hybrid, a "melocomedy." Lamos sometimes gets it just right, such as a quiet burial scene he stages in act two when Imogen's virile, loving brothers believe they've lost a new friend. Another lovely sequence is the play's ending; thanks to Lamos' sensitive blocking, the final moments alone are worth the admission price. Otherwise, Lamos runs into trouble establishing a uniform tone. He has the expository opening speeches delivered as if instructions to first-graders on carrying out a fire drill. Immediately after that, the focal characters begin yelling at each other as if they inhabit a land of the hearing-impaired.

In the overall hullabaloo, the actors achieve intermittent success. First among them is Cake, who makes a confident and conniving Iachimo. Following closely behind is Cerveris, whose Posthumus is commanding, vulnerable, and sincere. In the earlier segments, Plimpton overdoes the independence at a loss to the called-for delicacy, but she comes valiantly and humbly into her own during the later cross-dressing scenes. Cullum is an authoritative, typically hoodwinked Shakespeare king in an imposing crown and fur-trimmed cape, and Rashad is a lubricious Queen under another nifty headpiece. (The way she changes speech patterns depending on whom she's addressing is particularly amusing.) Of the supporting cast, Dannheiser turns his Cloten into comic relief more than is necessary; Furr, Wooddell, and O'Brien are engaging faux rustics; and John Pankow shines as Imogen and Posthumus' trusted servant, Pisanio.

Making beneficial contributions to the theatrical eye candy are Michael Yeargan's often literally starry sets and backdrops, Jess Goldstein's fairy-tale costumes that look as if fit for a 1002nd Arabian night, Brian MacDevitt's mood-shifting lighting, Mel Marvin's evocative music, and the effective sound design provided by Tony Smolenski IV and Walter Trarbach. Collectively, the creative team -- continuing the tradition of stunning Vivian Beaumont undertaking -- has imagined a luxurious realm of courtly pomp and rural retreat that you may wish to add to your holiday travel itinerary.

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