A Smashing Cymbeline


In Robert Beard’s The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English, he alphabetically travels from ailurophile (meaning a cat-lover) to woebegone.

Frankly, I disagree with those two and plenty of others: erstwhile … furtive … palimpsest …

Really, Robert! And I was especially sorry that you didn’t choose Cymbeline.

Well, maybe you follow the rules of Scrabble that eschew proper names. But Cymbeline is such a beautiful word that I say you should have made an exception.

Although it comes across as a woman’s name (I once met a Southern lass named — I swear it – Walterine), the Cymbeline in William Shakespeare’s 1611 hit was a man, to say the very least. His other persona allowed The Bard to officially name his play Cymbeline, King of Britain.

Medieval books call him Cunobeline, but you know Shakespeare; he loved to pretty up language. And there’s plenty of it to be heard in Daniel Sullivan’s excellent production currently at the Delacorte in Central Park.

Cymbeline may be king, he may possess the world and all of its gold, but he’s pretty henpecked by his second wife. An argument could be made that Shakespeare didn’t like her, either, because he wouldn’t even dignify her with a name; he simply called her The Queen. That also makes us see her as a power first and a person second.

From her first marriage, The Queen had a son to whom she gave the most unfortunate name: Cloten. On the other hand, considering what a dolt he is, it suits him well.

The Queen wants her boy to marry Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen. Her majesty doesn’t just think the two would make a cute couple; in those days – and we’re talking 9 A.D. – once the existing monarch died, the husband of a princess got to be king.

Imogen, however, loves Posthumus, whom The Queen wishes she could describe as posthumous. Since he’s still alive, she’ll try to kill him — and do in Imogen while she’s at it, too. But before she can, Cymbeline seemingly solves the conflict by banishing Posthumus from the kingdom.

Here’s where the plot takes off. Posthumus is in a bar one night and keeps talking about his oh-so-faithful Imogen. A ne’er-do-well named Iachimo bets Posthumus that he can bed this so-called devoted wife, because he believe there’s no such thing.

Plenty of scholars consider Cymbeline second-tier Shakespeare, but that’s apparently news to Sullivan, his cast and crew. They make the play an entertaining classic. Yes, three hours is a long time to sit in front of any drama, although just being outdoors in the Delacorte is superbly pleasant (if the weather cooperates, of course). Sullivan makes the time seem to go by faster than any theatergoer has a right to expect.

Costume designer David Zinn makes the excellent Kate Burton not just a Queen but also an ice queen. She looks as if Edward Gorey drew her. Easier on the eyes and ears is Lily Rabe’s Imogen, who quickly establishes herself as a strong woman, one we’d all like to have as a friend.

So why is she with this goofy Posthumus? At least that’s the way Hamish Linklater at first comes across. And yet, as the action continues, Sullivan shows us the play needs the type of man who believes circumstantial evidence, of which Iachimo provides plenty.

He’s brilliantly played by Raúl Esparza, whose Broadway career routinely takes turns in doing musicals (Rocky Horror, Taboo, Company) and plays (The Homecoming, Speed-the-Plow, Arcadia). Here he does have one song, a marvelous pastiche by Tom Kitt that allows him to be a first-century (and purposely second-rate) lounge singer.

Esparza has the confidence of a card-sharp who’s cool as a frozen cucumber. Note when he goes too far in his attempt to seduce Imogen and she’s ready to throw him out, he rallies in a shrewd way that would make another Shakespearean character with a similar name – Iago – nod in approval. Rabe makes Esparza a worthy opponent – at least until the script demands that she not be.

Patrick Page creates a Cymbeline that’s more regal than the script would have him be. His bedroom voice makes the late Barry White’s seem like Minnie Mouse’s. Given that the character has only 296 lines, Sullivan keeps Page busy as Philario, who lets Posthumus crash in his house after he’s banished. Page adopts a voice here that shows Philario has been in a number of smoky rooms.

Let it be known that there’s a ton of doubling; everyone in the cast plays at least one other role (although Rabe and Esparza rarely do). Burton even crosses the gender line to portray Belarius, the lord whom Cymbeline banished and who took the king’s two sons with him. She’s unrecognizable and quite convincing in the role – as is Linklater when he must also play his own rival Cloten, often braying like the ass that he metaphorically is. Linklater’s ability to switch into another being is so strong that a theatergoer might not even realize that this is the same actor. Still, there was a time – as recently as the last production in June – when the Delacorte stage was better populated.

True, times are financially tough for every theater, and one can argue “You get what you pay for,” considering that tickets are free. Nevertheless, we have become accustomed to larger casts in Shakespeare in the Park, where the playwright doesn’t have to be given royalties.

There’s also some unpaid labor on stage that can include you, dear theatergoer, should you care to occupy one of the three dozen seats that actually buttress the action. Before the show officially starts, volunteers are selected and given pieces of paper on which some exposition is printed. Then during the first scene, actors call on the volunteers who stand a la in school, deliver their line and revel in their 15 seconds of fame.

But the memories of this fine production will last substantially longer – and that is also due to Tom Kitt’s marvelous incidental music that punctuates the action. He, Sullivan and everyone else make Cymbeline much more than just a beautiful word.