One expects an audience of 1,800 people on their feet screaming with delight after “The Book of Mormon” or, now, “Hamilton.” But “Cymbeline?” Shakespeare’s late romance with the convoluted plot and confusing characters — though plenty of lyrical passages of poetry, as well? What’s up with that?
What’s up is Daniel Sullivan’s nigh-on genius production for Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte that makes it clear that Shakespeare was, first and foremost, a crowd-pleaser. Scholars have long debated whether this play belongs with Shakespeare’s comedies or romances, and over the years I’ve seen a generous handful of “Cymbelines,” all of which have highlighted the romance, emphasizing the pageantry, but ultimately became a long slog to get through. In this production — notable for its clarity, attention to detail, and nuance of character — Sullivan clearly throws his lot in with the groundlings who unabashedly revel in the absurdity of a crazy quilt plot punctuated with lyricism that takes your breath away.
What’s so refreshing about this “Cymbeline” is that in shaking off the bonds of “literature,” the play is no longer stultifying “Shakespeare that’s good for you” but instead vibrant entertainment. It is, if you will, Sullivan’s good-natured thumbing of the nose at academics, critics, or anyone who wants to keep Shakespeare rarified. Like Dickens, Shakespeare pandered to his audience, which is the essence of showmanship.
It is also remarkable to see how full “Cymbeline” is of Shakespeare’s tropes — a forbidden love, a father’s rage, plotting to seize the throne, lost brothers, threats to a heroine’s chastity, a trousers role, a happy ending where all is resolved… and a dance. As Oscar Wilde noted, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Even if, as Wilde implies, happy endings are an illusion, this production still sends you out into the New York night giddy with delight.
Sullivan also makes sure that the audience is in on all the jokes. He has structured the production as though it is being performed by a company of players, which allows for some sly commentary and inside jokes as we watch the actors take as much pleasure in each other’s performances as the audience does. With some inspired doubling of roles, there are only nine actors on the stage, but they fully create and inhabit the world of the play.
Lily Rabe is magnificent as Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter who has defied his wishes that she marry Cloten, the son of his second wife and queen, and instead chosen the commoner Posthumus Leonatus. As always, Rabe shows her Shakespearean chops, playing both the comedy and the romance in perfect balance. Hamish Linklater is both Posthumus and Cloten, equally at home with pratfalls and poetry. As Iachimo, who bets Posthumus that he can make him a cuckold, Raúl Esparza is the embodiment of vanity and villainy with a kind of oily charm that’s irresistible. Still, when he’s forced to repent at the end, it’s completely believable and touching. His song, when we first meet him, stopped the show, coming as a total explosion of showbiz.
Patrick Page as both Cymbeline and Philario, Posthumus’ host while the latter is in exile in Italy, is outstanding as well. Page is such a powerful actor who so often does over-the-top roles as in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” that it’s a pleasure to see all that strength used with subtlety. Kate Burton as the Queen and the banished lord Belarius is splendid.
In terms of doubling, however, one of the funniest moments of the final act comes when Teagle F. Bougere, who plays both the court doctor and the defeated Roman Lucius, does a quick change on stage.
David Furr and Jacob Ming-Trent as Cymbeline’s lost sons are outstanding together and start the play by warming up the audience. Steven Skybell as a comic Frenchman and Pisanio, Posthumus’ servant, is the conscience of the piece, a role he serves very well.
Riccardo Hernandez has created a wonderful set of two symmetrical gold frames that reinforce the self-aware artifice of the piece. David Zinn’s somewhat contemporary costumes are excellent, and David Lander’s lighting makes great use of color to give the whole production a jewel-like quality. Tom Kitt’s original music is a perfect complement to this production.
So is “Cymbeline” a romance or a comedy? Well, in modern terms, it seems like it’s a “romcom.” However you define it, it is definitely delicious midsummer madness and a constant delight.
If you’re looking for a little summer camp, you could do worse than a trip to “Ruthless: The Musical,” now at St. Luke’s. This return of a 1992 cult classic may leave a younger audience scratching their heads if they don’t get the references to Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, and mid-century musicals. Still, it’s a classic showbiz story that chronicles the dark antics of one Tina Denmark who is so determined to get the lead in the school show that she kills another little girl to get it. We also have Tina’s mother, Judy Denmark, who goes from being a perfect suburban wife and mother to a Broadway star when she discovers her real history — and that she has talent. And, in the drag role, we have Sylvia St. Croix, a talent agent who may not be what she appears to be.
This kind of camp satire was already getting old when this show first appeared, and aside from some contemporary jokes it doesn’t seem very fresh. However, the performances are completely entertaining. Tori Murray as Tina, wearing a version of Shirley Temple’s “Stand Up and Cheer” costume is creepy cute. Rita McKenzie as Tina’s grandmother has the only really memorable song in the show, “I Hate Musicals.” Paul Pecorino, who took over the role from an ailing Peter Land, is fine as Sylvia and has the camp siren bit down pat. But the reason to see this is Kim Maresca as Judy. She has a stunning voice, great timing, and all the makings of a great big Broadway star. It’s a noteworthy Off-Broadway debut, and one hopes to see much more of her.
If you’re looking for a little light diversion on a warm summer night, it’s fair to say that “Ruthless” will stop at nothing to provide it.
CYMBELINE | Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81st St. & Central Park West or 79th St. & Fifth Ave. | Through Aug. 23: Mon.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | Free; ticket information at publictheatre.org | Three hrs, with intermission
RUTHLESS | St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W. 46th St. | Mon., Fri. at 8 p.m.; Thu. at 7 p.m.; Sat. at 1:30 p.m. | $39.50-$69.50; telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Ninety mins., no intermission