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    One hit, three eras

    Theater for a New Audience's spectacular "Cymbeline" actually makes sense of Shakespeare's seemingly convoluted romance by setting it in three different times and places.


    My new hero is Bartlett Sher, director of Theater for a New Audience's "Cymbeline" at the Lucille Lortel. If you love Shakespeare, go. If you don't love Shakespeare, go. This isn't the usual mess of scrambled storylines that many of Shakespeare's late romances become when staged. Sher weaves together the magical threads of an evil stepmom, thwarted and deceived love, a foolish and dangerous suitor, kidnapped children and a bloody battle, and he does it so smoothly and with such clarity that I can't remember why I ever found the plot confusing.

    Company: Theater for a New Audience.
    Written by: William Shakespeare.
    Directed by: Bartlett Sher.
    Cast: Erica N. Tazel, Michael Stuhlbarg, Earl Hindman, Pete Starrett, Roderick Hill, Andrew Weems, Robert Stattell, Randy Danson, Peter Francis James, Boris McGiver.

    Related links: Official site
    Lucille Lortel Theatre
    121 Christopher St. (btw. 7th & Hudson)
    Previews start: Jan. 15, 2002
    Jan. 20 - March 1, 2002

    Storytellers Philip Goodwin and Thomas M. Hammond pull the tale together by moving in and out of the action as needed. Each of the play's different worlds is stunningly distinct, not only because of Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's resplendent costumes, or the fun yellow shower curtain that crosses the stage (set and lights by Christopher Akerlind) to waft us to Italy, but also because of the reinvention of the apparent "history" of the play. The court of Cymbeline, though originally set in Britain, is set so far back in history that it looks like the Orient, Italy is in the Renaissance, and the neatest piece of time-and-space traveling is Wales, which is now the Wild Wild West in the good ol' U.S. of A. What a wonderful piece of Americana to bring to the world premiere at Stratford's Other Place last November. (As a matter of fact, it was the first time an American company has ever been invited to perform Shakespeare at Stratford. Pretty cool, huh?)

    Posthumus (Michael Stulbarg) is the earnest young lover newly married to Princess Imogen (Erica N. Tazel), daughter of Cymbeline (Robert Stattel). The catch is, Cymbeline doesn't approve of the match and banishes him, which is how we first end up in Italy and meet the rake Iachimo, deliciously played by Boris McGiver. He sets himself up as Posthumus' rival for Imogen's love (just sex, really), but his main goal is to win a bet. Failing that, he lies about it. No biggie, except that Posthumus is more than a little peeved and thinks that killing his wife is the only way to deal with her infidelity.

    Meanwhile, back at the castle, Queen Stepmother (Randy Danson) is plotting Imogen's death, too, right after she arranges for Imogen, poor girl, to marry her creepy son Cloten. (She's also slowly poisoning the king, but that's another story.) Andrew Weems' barbaric-looking Cloten is a first-class clod, and I got a childlike thrill watching him charge across the stage and through the house on a horse, even if it only had two legs. Weems is both comical and dangerous in his intense stupidity, pure pleasure to watch.

    And out in the land of leather where everyone wears chaps, Cymbeline's lost sons (Pete Starrett and Roderick Hill) yearn for something more exciting than killing rabbits for dinner. They serenade us with country music by Peter John Still, the good old-fashioned kind, which swells into an ensemble musical number, neon and all.

    This three-hour play moves very quickly until the second half, when the pace slows to a crawl in several places. Part of this is Shakespeare's fault for making us sit through the long speeches of a god and some ghosts, none of which do much to further the action, though at least Sher has the good sense to cut it down to only one ghost. One of the best things about this production is that it never takes itself, or Shakespeare, too seriously. Cymbeline's ignorance of most of the court's goings-on is a great excuse to tie up all the loose ends, culminating in a raucous exchange of blows and kisses, complete with quarter-staff fights (excellent work by fight director J. Steven White) and great knee-slapping music.

    I'd love to spend more time raving about the colorful imagination at work here: the origami birds, the stage-snowy delights, the romantic reconciliations. But you should just go see it.

    JANUARY 24, 2002

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