PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Cymbeline — The Curse of Utopia

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Cymbeline — The Curse of Utopia That endangered (of late) species, the Broadway first-nighter, duded up Dec. 2 for the first opening in 19 days — Shakespeare's 398-year-old Cymbeline at the Vivian Beaumont.

Martha Plimpton; Jonathan Cake; Phylicia Rashad; John Cullum; Michael Cerveris; Jeff Woodman; Ezra Knight; Noshir Dalal & Jordan Dean; director Mark Lamos; Paul O'Brien & Sandra Shipley; Michael W. Howell; Louis Butelli & Anthony Cochrane; John Pankow.
Martha Plimpton; Jonathan Cake; Phylicia Rashad; John Cullum; Michael Cerveris; Jeff Woodman; Ezra Knight; Noshir Dalal & Jordan Dean; director Mark Lamos; Paul O'Brien & Sandra Shipley; Michael W. Howell; Louis Butelli & Anthony Cochrane; John Pankow. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Being non-profit, the Lincoln Center Theater operates under a different stagehands contract that shuttered most of the Main Stem for an anguished period of inactivity. It spent this time in previews — five weeks of them, following nine and a half weeks of rehearsal — perfecting a pretty sumptuous Cymbeline, which, as far as physical lavishness goes, gave the impression of approximating that of the Beaumont's previous tenant, Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, which spilled across its stage for seven months in three separate installments and swept up more Tonys (seven) than any play in Broadway history.

Talk about tough acts to follow, but director Mark Lamos has charged forth with passion and all-stops-out. It's his third Cymbeline — and, apparently, the charmer. The other two, he said, "were at Hartford Stage, my first season and my last. I bookended my time there."

Did his "rough drafts" have the extravagant look that his current one does? "In a regional theatre way," he proffered, meaning, of course, "No." His stratagem here is to splash the spectacle so high, wide and handsome it camouflages what is often considered one of The Bard's less-loved (and less-quoted) "late plays," and, in this, his accomplices is a dazzling design team. "Michael Yeargan, who did the sets, and Jess Goldstein, who did the costumes, have worked with me for two decades — operas and lots of theatre. Brian MacDevitt, the lighting designer, is new to me, but I just adored every single cue on that stage. He'd do his thing, and I'd literally fall down and applaud and yell and thank him."

Regardless of how Cymbeline stacks up against Shakespeare's other works, Lamos confessed a special affinity for the play. "I love how positive it is. I like its absurdities. I find them very beautiful — and very lifelike, actually. I like its whimsical nature. But, mostly, what appeals to me is the idea that the world is essentially good. That seems to be the message in this play, and — when it ends with couples reuniting, families reuniting and countries gaining peace — it's just a vision of the world that I find very, very moving."

How is he following this juggernaut? "With a one-woman play at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park" — and probably a bad case of the bends. "It's the American premiere of an Australian play by Robert Hewitt called The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead. Annalee Jefferies plays seven different roles. An amazing actress. She has done a lot of Hartford Stage, a lot of Alley Theatre in Houston and Clytemnestra for Peter Hall. And then I'm doing A Little Night Music at Baltimore Center Stage, with Polly Bergen as Madame Armfeldt. She's the only one that we have cast so far." The bountiful Beaumont is not unfamiliar turf for set designer Yeargan (he won a Tony for stylish abstractions that suggested Florence of the '50s in The Light in the Piazza).

"It's just such a big theatre," he sighed. "We talked about fairy tales a lot for this. And color. We talked about Tibetan architecture. I've a beautiful book on Tibetan architecture and costumes and all that. And just the idea of making it rich and lush and gorgeous."

Costumer Goldstein was a collaborator on the gorgeous, creating some ravishing outfits. "We sorta invented the whole look," he admitted. "It's based on a lot of ethnic clothing from Russia and China, Mongolia, Tibet — I just kinda mixed it all up and put it together."

His next stop after this giddy high is — kerplunk!The Homecoming, which, with its drab and dreary duds, is tantamount to coming down in an elevator real fast. Then, he said, "starting next month, we get ready for the London production of Jersey Boys."

There is one major denizen from Utopia who made it ashore to Cymbeline, and she is centrally located in the star spot: Martha Plimpton, who won a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination for the work in the Stoppard marathon, plays the daughter of the title king (John Cullum) — Imogen, a princess bride whose course of true love is intensely complicated by a wicked stepmother (Phylicia Rashad), a rascally bogus swain, Iachimo (Jonathan Cake), and a homicidally jealous groom, Posthumus (Michael Cerveris).

What Cymbeline lacks in familiar lines, it more than makes up for in familiar Storylines — as if Shakespeare was replaying his greatest plot tricks. There's the sleeping potion that was thought to be poison. There's the cross-dressing heroine and the near-incest that occurs when a couple of strapping youths she finds in the forest turn out to be her long-lost bros. There are the stolen accessories presented to misrepresent adultery and cause jealousy.

For all the above to unravel and smooth out into hug-everybody happily-ever-aftering requires three and a quarter hours. Nevertheless, Lincoln Center is not offering you a view from the unabridged, according to Cullum, who is in a position to know, playing a title character who has been reduced to a walk-on (albeit, a properly regal walk-on).

"The first three of my five scenes are so short," Cullum noted. "They've been cut tremendously. They've taken off the whole Roman relationship of Cymbeline to Julius Caesar. It makes the scenes so tight that you walk on — and bam! you gotta make your impression and get off, and you don't have any time to really get anything else going."

A seasoned Shakespearean campaigner, Cullum has no trouble arriving with full royal authority, ready to work. "This is the first Shakespeare I've done in New York since the Burton Hamlet," he suddenly remembered. He was Laertes for four months in 1964, and that was enough time for Richard Burton's rich theatricality to work its way into Cullum's acting. "That followed me for a long time," he conceded. "I've done two Hamlets myself since then. The first one was Burtonesque; the second one was not. And, of course, I've done Lear a couple of times, but I've never done it in New York."

Imogen is not Plimpton's first brush with The Bard. She played Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream in August for her ex-stepfather, Dan Sullivan, so it's her second — but she equips herself like a veteran who has been doing it all of her life. "I love doing it every night, I love the company, I love the role, and I love the play. As odd as it is, I love it."

Plus, she looks great doing it. Goldstein has fashioned some stunning gowns for her that actually draw gasps when she makes entrances. "I've been very fortunate in that department," she allowed. "Of course, Catherine [Zuber] dressed me so beautifully in The Coast of Utopia. Then, in Hedda Gabler, Cathy dressed me really beautifully."

She was particularly pleased that her dad, Keith Carradine, was in the audience on opening night — as ever, a fatherly fixture at ringside. You can almost set your watch by it. "I think he just missed one. He always comes, if not at the opening, later on in the run."

Carradine needed no prodding whatsoever about his opinion of his daughter's prowess. Unexpectedly: "I'm so proud of her, and the thing I'm most proud of is she has developed her gifts herself. She has worked harder than anyone I know. I pray that one day I get to be on stage with her because she could teach me from morning till night.

"Someone once asked Eleanora Duse, 'How do you do what you do?' She said, 'I put my feet on the stage, I grab hold with my toes, and I just hang on.' That's Martha. My father [John] had that kind of power. My brother David has that kind of power. I have craft. She is so far beyond. She's the culmination of the gene pool from my side of the family. Her mother's side [Shelley Plimpton] also contributed profoundly. I'd say, from my side, she's the quintessence of the realization of that potential. I was just kvelling in the audience."

He was preaching to the converted, telling this to John Pankow, who plays Pisario, a retainer sent to assassinate Imogen who instead counsels her. "That is describing your daughter," Pankow agreed. "She comes to life when she's doing that play. It's awesome to be on stage with her. Sometimes you break concentration on stage, and you think, 'Why am I on stage in my undies?' — but you look into Martha's eyes and she zaps you right back into the play. She has such a gift for deeply slipping into an imaginary world." Cerveris, who lately zigzags with alarming rapidity between musicals (LoveMusik, Sweeney Todd, his Tony-winning Assassins) and Shakespeare (King Lear, Macbeth), is comfortable with the stop-start aspects of Posthumus. "Actually, he's like what Kent was in Lear," he pointed out. "You come on and have a bunch of stuff at the beginning, then you're off for a long time, and then you have a bunch of stuff at the end — this, even more so because, once I come back, I'm essentially on stage till the end of the play. It's a huge arc Posthumus goes through, a whole roller-coaster. I mean, it's like a play unto itself."

Cake, a London transplant, stirs the cauldron vigorously as the trouble-making Iachimo who convinces Posthumus that he has had an affair with Imogen — and he seems to be the only person on stage, speaking crisp King's English. "Actually, there's another Brit in the company, though he's Scottish: Anthony Cochrane," he noted. "Also, you should know Michael Cerveris is the greatest Anglophile I know. He spends a lot of time in London."

He's quite happy with the cunning plotter he plays. "It's a great part. He will do whatever it takes. Anyone who knows the play knows there's this warm, extraordinary scene in Imogen's bedchamber. It's one of the most famous Shakespeare scenes where Iachimo comes up and charms her. It's an extraordinary gift as an actor to play it. I love doing it."

The character is introduced into the play via a steam-room scene that, at the start of previews, displayed his derriere. "We experimented showing off a bit more flesh than we do now. Everyone thought it was just distracting so we cut it." As things now stand, he only has thighs for you — which he previously showed off as Jason to Fiona Shaw's Medea.

Mrs. Cake — Julianne Nicholson of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" — beamed blissfully on the sidelines. "I'm on maternity leave right now, but I'll be back in January. We just had a baby three months ago. A friend thought up the name — Ignatius — and it just stuck."

Tony winner Rashad is also the source of much mischief in the play as Mrs. Cymbeline, alternately planning to poison Imogen or get her to marry her own son, Cloten (Adam Dannheisser), a comic villain who comes to a harsher end that his stupidity deserves.

Rashad plays the role on another planet from Cosbyland, as if she had used "Snow White and the Seven Drawfs" for her training film. It is her debut as a villainess and as a Shakespearean actress. "I had the help of a fine director, a wonderful cast and some very good coaching," she admitted. "What I like about the character is the challenge that it presents. It has been hard to do the cadence of the speech — to move with that rhythmically and honestly, and to understand all the rules and regulations of Shakespeare theatre."

A post-premiere drizzle erased the evidence of the season's first snow as guests made their way to a firefly-lit Tavern on the Green. Attending: Frank Rich and Alex Witchel, director Jack O'Brien and Marsha Mason, Peter Francis James, Howard McGillin, Veanne Cox, Jane Greenwood, Alfred Uhry, Marian Seldes and Brian Murray, Laura Flanigan, Sandra Shipley, Joan Copeland, Melvin Bernhardt and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The latter have The Glorious Ones going downstairs at Lincoln Center in the Mitzi Newhouse, while upstairs at the Vivian Beaumont The Gorgeous Ones (a.k.a. a redeemed Cymbeline) reigns supreme — 'til Jan. 6. It must vacate for a tidal wave called South Pacific. Will the spectacle never stop?

Michael Rossmy, Peter Francis James and Herb Foster at the opening night party for <i>Cymbeline</i>.
Michael Rossmy, Peter Francis James and Herb Foster at the opening night party for Cymbeline. Photo by Aubrey Reuben