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Reviewed by:
  • Cymbeline
  • Janet Gupton
Cymbeline. By William Shakespeare. New York Shakespeare Festival, Delacorte Theatre, New York. 9 August 1998.

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Figure 1.

(Foreground) Stephanie Roth Haberle as Imogen, (background, left to right) Jeffrey Frace, Thom Sesma and Anson Mount in the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by Andrei Serban at The Delacorte Theatre. Photo: Michal Daniel.

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Figure 2.

(Bottom to Top): Michael Hall as Posthumus Leonatus, Liev Schreiber as Iachimo and Frank Raiter as Philario in the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by Andrei Serban at The Delacorte Theatre. Photo credit: Michal Daniel.

Set against the backdrop of Central Park and the Delacorte Theatre, the set of Andrei Serban’s production of Cymbeline blended with its surroundings. Four trees were nestled atop a grassy mound, a circular sand pit took center stage and a moat of water surrounded most of the outer perimeter of the stage just in front of the audience. Serban used all of these natural elements in a moving but sometimes uneven production of one of Shakespeare’s problematic romances.

Cymbeline challenges director and cast to tell a convoluted story of “deceit, murder, abandonment, and cross dressing” (as the production’s poster suggests) and employs two dozen revelations to tie up the loose ends of three different plots: a king (Cymbeline) banishes his daughter’s husband (Posthumus) at the insistence of his wife; the husband’s faith in his wife (Imogen) is tested as is her faith in him; and a war breaks out between Britain and Rome, the result of which is the king’s discovery of two lost sons, kidnapped in infancy. Eventually, the plots connect, and order is restored.

To tell this epic tale, Serban made full use of the available materials. His actors plowed through the sand pit, literally and metaphorically kicking sand in each other’s faces, waded soaked through the water, while scents filled the air and live musical accompaniment accented the events onstage. When the action moves to the forest where Cymbeline’s kidnapped sons have been living in a cave, the earth literally moved. Slowly the mound on the right side of the stage ascended into the air to create the cave while the audience held its collective breath.

Despite the fascination of such tricks, the appeal of Serban’s production ultimately lay in the ability of the actors to tell the story and to convince the audience that these characters are worthy of affection, approval, and finally redemption. Imogen’s stepmother, the evil Queen, and her son, Cloten, are the exceptions to this redemption. Hazelle Goodman, as the Queen, and Robert Stanton, as Cloten, embraced the larger-than-life qualities of their characters, creating melodramatic portrayals to match the audacity of their lines, although those portrayals sometimes put them at risk of appearing as though they were in another play altogether. In contrast to the evil Queen and her son, Imogen must appear a paragon of virtue. Stephanie Roth Haberle, who played this role while pregnant (a fact not specifically called for in the script), used this condition to her advantage by providing a nuanced interpretation, which would not otherwise work, to her lines. Haberle’s pregnancy and her heartfelt earnestness intensified the audience’s empathy for this spurned wife. Michael Hall as Posthumus was particularly good during his soliloquy in which he denounced women because he believed his wife had betrayed him. He delivered the speech with venom and comedy as he used women audience members to point out female follies. Liev Schreiber’s Iachimo teetered between endearing rogue and cold-hearted criminal, while Randall Duk Kim’s Belarius had simple dignity and grace onstage.

For the most part, Serban’s work with the actors in conveying the basic humanity of these characters saved the play from its flirtation with melodrama and high jinks. However, the British-Roman war that occurs in the play still proves incongruous and confusing, as did the dream sequence in which Posthumus is visited by the spirit of his dead parents. The dream was...

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