Posthumus (Hamish Linklater) and Iachimo (Raúl Esparza) make a dangerous bet as Philario (Patrick Page) looks on (photo by Carol Rosegg)
Through August 23, free, 8:30
Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s later, lesser-known plays, is not easy to bring to the stage. It’s a sort of greatest-hits mash-up of previous Bard themes and plot devices, lacking in memorable lines and named after a relatively minor character. So Tony-winning Shakespeare in the Park veteran Daniel Sullivan has added a large dose of whimsy to what turns out to be a rather charming and modern romantic comedy. In fact, whereas the first folio identifies it as “The Tragedy of Cymbeline,” a framed backdrop that is visible throughout nearly all of the Public Theater presentation calls it “The Story of Cymbeline,” as tragedy becomes farce. With war threatening between Britain and Rome in ancient times, King Cymbeline (Patrick Page) has banished Posthumus Leonatus (Hamish Linklater), a commoner who is married to, and very much in love with, his daughter, Imogen (Lily Rabe), so she can instead wed the queen’s not-too-swift progeny, Cloten (Linklater). Meanwhile, in a 1950s-era Vegas-y Rome, Posthumus boasts about his wife’s virtue, leading the Italian playboy Iachimo (Raúl Esparza), after performing a glitzy Sinatra-like number, to lay a wager that he can bed Imogen and despoil her honor. The bet is overseen by Philario (Page), a sharp-dressed gangster who is Posthumus’s host. As the queen conspires to poison Imogen, both Iacomo and Cloten attempt to woo the princess, who soon sets out for Wales disguised as a boy to set things straight with her one true love. But on the way she gets lost in the woods and is taken in by an oddball anarchist family consisting of a bent-over father (Burton) and his two would-be sons (David Furr and Jacob Ming-Trent). It all leads to a dizzying finale with more than two dozen revelations coming fast and furious.
The cloddish Cloten (Hamish Linklater) makes his case to marry Imogen (Lily Rabe) (photo by Carol Rosegg)
Sullivan (Proof, Twelfth Night) has a ball revealing the artifice behind the production while also taking the story to some surprising extremes. Riccardo Hernandez’s set features a pair of large gold frames and boxes and props from other Shakespeare productions (Hamlet, King Lear), reminding everyone of the machinations behind it all. There are several rows of audience members on either side of the stage who do indeed get involved in the action, while some of the actors sit at the back of the stage between their scenes. Rabe and Linklater, who are partners in real life and have previously appeared together in Seminar on Broadway and in The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing at the Delacorte, are at their best in Cymbeline, she as the strong-willed and sexy Imogen, he going back and forth between the noble-to-a-fault Posthumus and the dumb-and-dumber Cloten (complete with Jim Carrey–like wig), pausing in his line readings for maximum double-entendre effect. Page (Casa Valentina, Cyrano de Bergerac) is gallant as the king and Philario, balancing power with a conscience; Burton is nicely wicked as the queen and almost unrecognizable as Belarius; four-time Tony nominee Esparza (Company, Taboo) is appropriately smarmy as Iachimo, who spans two eras; Teagle F. Bougere (A Raisin in the Sun, Macbeth) is solid as Roman ambassador Lucius and court doctor Cornelius, particularly in the grand finale; Steven Skybell (Pal Joey, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is engaging as Pisanio, Posthumus’s loyal servant who dedicates himself to Imogen; and Furr (As You Like It, The Importance of Being Earnest) and Ming-Trent (Hands on a Hardbody, Shrek the Musical) bring a sweet nature to their portrayals of the mountain brothers as well as the play’s narrators. Yes, it’s lesser Shakespeare, and at nearly three hours it runs too long (even with the excision of the Jupiter dream sequence), but Sullivan’s fanciful production is a whole lot more fun than Cymbeline usually is. (Don’t forget that in addition to waiting on line at the Delacorte to get free tickets, you can also enter the daily virtual ticketing lottery online here.)