In the Shakespeare canon, Cymbeline is a late play and a long play: by line count, the third longest, with 3,753. (The Comedy of Errors has less than half as many.) Some of those lines are genius, the pungency of their imagery distilled by years of know-how and undiluted by the passage of centuries: The English Channel is a “salt-water girdle,” desire a “tub both filled and running.” But, like a turducken, Cymbeline keeps you asking, even as you swallow it, “What the heck is this?” Categorically, it’s a late romance, a term that seems to mean “hodgepodge of craziness” and that usually involves some combination of potions, false deaths, changeling princes, and gender shenanigans. Cymbeline has them all; as a result, in production, it’s usually just incoherent.
What a difference a director makes! Daniel Sullivan’s production for the Public Theater provides not only a delightful evening in Central Park but also a successful argument for the play. He settles at once on a tone that can support the narrative’s oddball excursions. (He also cuts a lot of those excursions; the text is fiercely edited, bringing it to a swift three hours.) Right from the start we understand that this is going to be not a romance but a romantic comedy, with an emphasis on the comedy. Droll David Furr and puppyish Jacob Ming-Trent do the exposition duties as if delivering a “here’s what you missed” recap on Glee, with certain lines handed on note cards to audience members to read into a microphone. (“But pray you, tell me, is she sole child to the king?” asked a bashful man in the front row of onstage seating the other night.) To make it clear how he wants you to think about the rest of the play, Sullivan even has the nine-member principal cast take a group selfie as the action proper begins.
Or, rather, action improper: The plot turns on an inherently distasteful wager about a woman’s virtue. Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline by his late first wife, has without his permission married Posthumus, who is banished to Italy as a result. There the slimy Iachimo works him into a lather of connubial self-regard, whence it is only a step to the bet on Imogen’s ability to withstand the Italian’s charms. (He lays 10,000 ducats that he will enjoy her “dearest bodily part.”) Meanwhile, two side stories interlock with the main story like puzzle pieces, though sometimes they have to be pounded into place: Cymbeline’s second wife has a cloddish son, helpfully named Cloten, whom she hopes to promote to the throne by removing first Posthumus and then Imogen. The other side story involves the king’s sons, kidnapped long ago, and — well, never mind.
The speaking cast is reduced from the typical 30-plus to 9, with everyone doubling in several roles except Lily Rabe as Imogen; but then Imogen herself plays an alternate character when she disguises herself as the serving boy Fedele. One effect of the small human scale is to make the production more intimate, even in the large and handsome multi-proscenium setting by Riccardo Hernandez. Another is, again, to rejigger the genre; nothing too vast can happen with only a handful of actors. (Sometimes it seems as if the play is being performed not in Central Park but in Central Perk.) A third effect is metatheatrical, as we come to enjoy not just the story but also the actors’ nimbleness in telling it this way. They are uncommonly clear with the language, and the way their different characters use it. This is by now a familiar pleasure with Rabe and with Hamish Linklater, who plays both Posthumus and Cloten; their many previous Delacorte outings are somehow baked into the subtext of their glowing performances here. But then everyone has moments to shine, from old Shakespeare hands like Patrick Page (as Cymbeline) and Kate Burton (as the queen, but also as a rustic pappy) to actors you don’t usually associate with Shakespeare at all, like Raúl Esparza as Iachimo. Esparza is terrific as that slime ball, stepping right over the common trap of making him so obviously evil that anyone in earshot would know what he’s up to. That subtlety is important to the theme Sullivan seems to be highlighting most: the mess-making credulity of privilege. We see it writ large in the main story, in which Iachimo is able to play on Posthumus’s assumptions about Imogen exactly because those assumptions are so blind; we see it writ smaller in the subsidiary stories, in which class is the denominator. Kings are insulated from the effects of their intemperate actions, rustics are assumed to be dangerous rubes, and everyone’s default position when something bad happens is that the butler did it.
Aside from attacking privilege, Sullivan also wants to talk about war: Huge panels on either side of the set, lit bloodred by David Lander, depict Napoleon on a steed stage left, a 20th-century tank stage right. This is not a two-way conversation, however; the play, at least as cut, won’t go there. In what was once called The Tragedie of Cymbeline, there’s very little tragedy left. (The only characters dead at the end are the ones who were asking for it all along.) But Sullivan’s other overlayments work beautifully. I was especially taken with the songs by Tom Kitt, the composer of Next to Normal and If/Then: a Bobby Darrin Rat Pack finger-snapper (set to words interpolated from Antony and Cleopatra) for Iachimo; a Monkees-like “Hark Hark the Lark” for dimwit Cloten; and a lovely “Fear No More,” that gorgeous lyric, in the style of James Taylor. The pastiches do not trivialize the poetry but rather snap it into focus.
I suppose you could argue that a lovely and sensible production of Cymbeline is not in fact Cymbeline, and it’s true that Sullivan has to play the final scene, with its hailstorm of absurd revelations, entirely for laughs in order to make sense of it here. In the process, it loses some of its potential emotional power. But everywhere else, that power is only heightened by an immediately identifiable genre frame. The long scene of Iachimo’s attempted courtship of Imogen achieves some of the delicious layered-ness of Much Ado About Nothing; Posthumus’s jealousy begins to smell of Othello. Even that weird final scene, in which justice is dealt as if from a dipper, echoes the greatness of The Merchant of Venice (which Sullivan directed here five years ago, and in which Rabe was a luminous Portia). Perhaps this approach wouldn’t suffice indoors during the regular season, but the park on an August evening begs and rewards a lighter meal.
Cymbeline is at the Delacorte through August 23.