Update of Bard's `Cymbeline' is riddled with incongruities

THEATER: REVIEW

CYMBELINE Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by JoAnne Akalaitis. At the Public/Newman. THE New York Shakespeare Festival Marathon continues its uneven course with a bizarre production of ``Cymbeline.'' Staged by JoAnne Akalaitis, a founding member of Mabou Mines, the revival is set ``in the midst of Celtic ruins - a Romantic fantasy in Victorian England.'' The device has prompted Ms. Akalaitis to take assorted liberties - not so much with the text itself as with the particulars of what Harley Granville-Barker called ``a charmingly incongruous play ... a hybrid tragi-comedy.''

The performance begins with thunderclaps from the amplifiers. (Lighting designer Pat Collins heightens the excitement with some realistic flashes of lightning at a later point.) The action moves swiftly enough in a three-hour-plus unfoldment (with one intermission), as the deeply wronged Imogen (Joan Cusack) pursues the course which eventually clears her of all calumnies and leads to a round robin of reconciliations.

Meanwhile, the incongruities of the Akalaitis interpretation accumulate. Notwithstanding its placement in Victorian England, there is never any attempt by the actors to approximate British speech. The diction is a hodgepodge of accents.

Michael Cumpsty's wicked Iachimo, for instance, suggests a broad caricature of Robert Goulet. The golliwog Cloten of Wendell Pierce seems almost racist, even if such was not the intention. Those long lost royal brothers Guiderius and Arvigarus (Jesse Borrego and Don Cheadle) could easily have stepped from the pages of ``The Last of the Mohicans.'' King Cymbeline (George Bartenieff), in his dressing gown and cap, is the very model of an eminent Victorian.

Ms. Cusack (an Oscar nominee for her performance in ``Working Girl'') achieves an emotional sensitivity, warm appeal, and womanly fortitude which compensate to an extent for what she lacks in classical aptitude. On the other hand, the production is particularly well served by Peter Francis James's style and authority as Pisanio. Other principals in the large company include Jeffrey Nordling as the too credulous Posthumus, Joan MacIntosh as Cymbeline's wicked Queen, and Frederick Neumann as the banished Belarius.

George Tsypin's set design lacks nothing in the way of spectacular effects, photographic blowups, and stage machinery as it visualizes British, Italian, and Welsh locales. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes cross the boundaries of time, continent, and fantasy. The Philip Glass score features the familiar successions of repeated chords plus agreeable melodies.

Considering the care that went into ``Cymbeline,'' one wishes that it had done more credit to the company, producer Joseph Papp, and the Bard being celebrated in this, the ninth production in the New York Shakespeare Festival Marathon.

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