About 10 minutes into the first act of "Cymbeline," a sumptuous Broadway production of this infrequently performed Shakespeare play, you'll find yourself thinking, "Wait a minute. Is this 'Othello?'" But when the wicked queen comes onstage to dupe her clueless husband, you realize, "Of course not, it's 'Macbeth.'" However, with the revealing of her secret sleeping potion, you have to reassess: "Nope, it's 'Romeo and Juliet.'" Or maybe "King Lear" after the elderly king disowns his disobedient daughter.
In fact, it's all of them. Remember The Reduced Theatre Company's hilarious performance of "The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)" in which three actors performed all 37 plays in 100 minutes? Well, you can think of "Cymbeline" in the same vein, only it takes three bloody hours instead.
The last of the Roman-inspired plays, following "Titus Andronicus," "Julius Caesar," "Antony and Cleopatra," and "Coriolanus," "Cymbeline" is a genre-defying tragicomic play in which evil is always present, disaster always threatens to strike, but only the bad guys die and all's well that ends well. Actually based on real history, with the power of love as the centerpiece, "Cymbeline" offers something for everyone, especially fans of the entire Shakespearean panoply. With bits and pieces of every one of his most famous plays woven in and out of the myriad plots and sub-plots, you'll have the most fun if you just try to identify the imbedded plays, and make a mental tic sheet of the plot points. Here's a quick baker's dozen:
Children kidnapped by a wronged employee
Testing of a virtuous wife's faithfulness
Arranged marriage vs. marrying for love
England's war with the Roman invaders
Domineering wife with a marshmallow husband
Evil stepmother and rebellious stepdaughter
Succession of the monarchy
Male bonding and latent homosexuality
Murder and theft
Mysticism, Paganism and Christian redemption
So where's the romance, you ask? It's all centered on the lovely Princess Imogen, imprisoned because she defies her father, King Cymbeline, and refuses to marry her wicked stepmother's son, Cloten (since she's secretly already married to Posthumus Leonatus). Eager to have her dear son succeed to the throne, the Queen orders up a secret potion that'll kill Imogen, and then orders Posthumus to be murdered.
Imogen, in the meantime, who has more luck than the Irish, dresses up like a poor peasant boy and escapes into the woods (How'd Sondheim get into this?) where she meets her long-lost brothers!
Battles ensue; egos are repaired; honor is restored; lovers and families are reunited; kingdoms are saved, and the British Empire can finally get on its way. What gives this quirky play its charm are the talented energetic cast and the gorgeous costumes, even if the British royalty canï¿½t quite seem to figure out exactly what high couture was in the first century.
Martha Plimpton, Broadway's newest darling, exudes well-balanced innocence, passion, and righteous indignation as Imogen, and Phylicia Rashad gives a regal, though overacted performance as her wicked stepmother. John Cullum, the marshmallow husband, moves easily from irate father to congratulatory peacemaker as King Cymbeline.
But the most striking performances come from Jonathan Cake as the seductive purveyor of falsehood, Iachimo, the would-be defiler of Imogen's honor, and Michael Cerveris, as banished Posthumus, who realizes the error of his ways with not a moment to spare.
"Cymbeline," despite the fun made in this review, is really a dreadful play. It's so convoluted and chaotic, that the only way to really enjoy it is to just sit back and try to identify all the plays hidden in the action. If you've never seen a Shakespeare play, you probably shouldnï¿½t start with this one. But if the Bard is your baby, then hurry to Lincoln Center.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus
"In imposing a formal elegance on one of Shakespeareï¿½s most wayward plays, the director, Mark Lamos, keeps confusion firmly at bay, smoothing its kinked story line into a well-drilled parade of avowals and betrayals, plots and counterplots, deaths and resurrections. The clarity and restrained opulence of the production are more satisfying, unfortunately, than the caliber of the performances, which tend toward blandness or overstatement. The singular exception is an outstanding turn from Michael Cerveris..."
New York Times
"Boasts a superb central performance and gorgeous visuals, and, save for some patchy diction and projection, is ever accessible"
New York Daily News
"Perhaps the prime virtues of Lamos' elegant, eloquent staging (and the man is among the finest Shakespearean directors in the world) are its grace, speed and total intelligibility. More than any of the many productions of "Cymbeline" I've seen, it has an immediacy that grips, grasps and tenaciously holds." & "The three principals are splendid. Martha Plimpton's gutsy yet vulnerable Imogen, Michael Cerveris as her wronged and poetically distraught husband Posthumus, and his betrayer Jonathan Cake's slinkily sensual Iachimo (he even makes his remorseful penitence convincing) offer a trio that would be hard to beat."
New York Post
"Cymbeline" remains a mishmash of incompatible styles and improbable plot lines." & "Plimpton has rapidly become one of New York theater's most self-challenging talents. Although she is better at subtext and attitude than sincerity, she has a delicate sturdy confidence in one of Shakespeare's largest (if not most complex) female roles."
"A first-class staging of Shakespeare's wonderfully weird saga of a runaway British princess and the several men who lose their heads over her -- one of them literally so. Smartly staged, handsomely designed and boldly performed under Mark Lamos' direction, this 400-year-old comedy-drama-history-mystery-romance is a treat for anyone willing to go with Shakespeare's far-fetched tale. "
"Not long after a disguised and exhausted Imogen has linked up with the rustics who will turn out to be her long-lost family, she pleads with them not to dote on her, explaining that "the breach of custom / Is breach of all." There's nothing wrong with Mr. Lamos's eminently classy, crisply elocuted, lamentably customary production that a few breaches couldn't fix."
New York Sun
" "Cymbeline," an imperfect play, a production as perfect as humanly possible. Impeccable direction, stylish acting, and enough lavish spectacle to carry the eye and ear past any demurral of the finickiest brain. Rejoice! ...as magisterially staged by Mark Lamos, "Cymbeline" becomes a long evening of proliferating delights, a dazzling display of theatrical fireworks. Do not let anything deter you from feasting on this production. It is Shakespeare that London and both Stratfords should envy. We happy few (or, preferably, many) who caught it will use it as touchstone for whatever future Shakespeare we may yet experience."
"Mark Lamos... has delivered a lucid, emotionally generous and visually sumptuous production that corrals the convoluted tale and allows the play's three lead actors to shine."
"The staging's many strengths aside, Plimpton alone is reason enough to recommend it, delivering in abundance Imogen's charm, resourcefulness and fortitude. "