Even all gussied up, play’s not the thing

BY ROB KENDT.Special to Newsday

May 4, 2007
Some artists end with a bang, with final works that effectively sum up their brilliant careers: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and late quartets, Rembrandt’s reflective

last portraits, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors.

Less so Shakespeare, whose towering achievement teetered near the end. In the least beloved of his late plays, "Cymbeline," an oddly resistible grab bag of recycled plots and unmagical absurdities, the confused heroine Imogen refers to "a fog . . . that I cannot look through." She could be describing our view of the play.

If anyone can blast away the haze, it is the matter-of-factly bold English company Cheek by Jowl, justly renowned for its bracing, remarkably rust-free renditions

of the classics. In a sprawling but never leisurely production now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod give "Cymbeline" a clarity and intensity that make the play crackle

nearly as much as it creaks.

It begins in a baffling welter of recriminations and backstory and ends with a scene of reunions and revelations so comprehensive they’re giggle-inducing. The action stretched between these two posts is epic in scale if not in drama. The baddies here are a shallow, venal lot: a smiling witch of a queen (Gwendoline Christie), her preening son Cloten (Tom Hiddleston) and a skeezy Italian

dandy, Iachimo (Guy Flanagan, doing a gravelly goombah accent). The blundering, impotent monarch, Cymbeline (David Collings), conspicuously merits neither the crown nor the play’s title.

Hero and heroine, truth be told, aren’t much more substantial: the long-suffering Imogen, played by Jodie McNee with a startling fierceness, and her inconveniently

exiled husband Posthumus, rendered with dreamy sensitivity by Hiddleston. This double-casting flourish - a leading man who switches between devil and angel

by changing his coat, eyewear and vocal register - is more attention-getting

than illuminating.

Donnellan and Ormerod, who’ve set the action in mid-20thcentury limbo, use the Harvey’s cavernous stage to scintillating effect, overlapping scenes with cinematic fluidity and isolating choice moments of ghost-like communion

between characters who aren’t strictly on the same page.

In one crystalline example, the play’s most intriguing character,the valet Pisanio (Richard Cant), stands between Imogen and Posthumus, young lovers estranged to the point of murderous revenge by a manufactured lie. Donnellan’s staging beautifully conveys the good servant’s divided loyalties and the distance he must travel to bridge them.

What a distance that proves to be: from Rome to Wales, through a wager and a war. This crashing "Cymbeline" is never less than watchable, even if the strain to entertain is occasionally palpable: Cloten and his sidekicks crowding a microphone for a Four Seasonsesque take on "Hark, hark! the lark"; Imogen, disguised as a boy, getting manhandled by a pair of simpletons; a gratuitous hint of

gory necrophilia. The fog shrouding the Bard’s later work doesn’t require quite such heavy lifting.

CYMBELINE. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Declan Donnellan. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. Through May 12. 718-636-4100. Seen Wednesday.

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