First Nighter: William Shakespeare's and Daniel Sullivan's 'Cymbeline' Lights up Central Park

08/10/2015 10:01 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2016

There's a reliable rule of the stage according to which, if the actors are having fun, the audience absolutely will. That's what's rambunctiously going on throughout Daniel Sullivan's fooling around with William Shakespeare's late romance, Cymbeline, in the Public Theater's newest Central Park venture.

For his working with the Bard this summer, Sullivan has had Riccardo Hernandez erect two false proscenia--one behind the other--and otherwise clutter the set with wooden boxes, various busts and, among other paraphernalia, a big red-and-black cutout of Eugene Delacroix's Napoleon on horseback.

The result is an eye-catching playground on which the nine--count 'em, nine--polished and raring-to-go thesps tuck into the clotted Cymbeline plot, where British King Cymbeline (Patrick Page) causes dire problems for daughter Imogen (Lily Rabe) when instead of marrying Cloten (Hamish Linklater), the son by a former marriage of his trouble-making Queen (Kate Burton), she weds Posthumus Leonatus (also Linklater, minus a shaggy brown wig).

That's only the start of events that have the now banished Posthumus enter a bet with conniving Iachimo (Raul Esparza), guest of Roman host Philario (also Page, which is how things go in this undertaking). Iachimo contends he can render Imogen unfaithful to Posthumus, which he doesn't do but contrives anyway to steal the gold bracelet Posthumus gave her and thereby convince the poor fellow she's been untrue.

Before you can say "Posthumus Leonatus" Imogen has left her comfortable confines and is wandering through the wilderness where she's taken in by onetime court confidant Belarius (Burton in male drag, dontcha know?) and by Guiderius (David Furr) and Arviragus (Jacob Ming-Trent), the boys Belarius is raising as his sons.

But why go on about a convoluted string of events that includes a head Guiderius severs from Cloten's body and that in no time Imogen--who eventually drinks a potion that puts her in a death-like slumber--mistakes for her beloved Posthumus? This is well before everything comes right, which is what occurs in the later plays Shakespeare wrote when he mellowed, a development historians and biographers can't explain but probably has to do with nothing other than aging.

Actually, the cluttered action--which also includes friction between British King Cymbeline and Roman ambassador Lucius (Teagle F. Bougere), who also plays a court doctor, sometime practically simultaneously)--does hamper the enjoyment during the second half of the three-hour running time.

Don't despair. The slow patch is nothing when compared to the cornucopia of delights Sullivan and cast--not to mention costumer David Zinn, lighting designer David Lander and sound designer Acme Sound Partners--have stored up for one-every-minute reveals.

Perhaps the first over-the-top wowser-dowser is Iachimo's introduction as a Vegas lounge singer rendering Shakespeare lyrics for which Tom Kitt has supplied a grindhouse melody. Esparza, who knows how to wring every drop of joy from something like this, does just that with the aid of the impossibly tall Rabe in a slinky gold minidress. Whereupon the two of them chug to hot-hot-hot steps choreographer Mimi Lieber has devised. (Nice to have Esparza back live from his current tv stints on Law & Order: SVU and Hannibal.) Before the delights have all been unpacked, Furr and Ming-Trent also get their chance to warble another Shakespeare-Kitt ditty.

And the performing! Burton's second-act turn when the Queen turns out to be a dipso guzzling from a flask she hides in her reticule is matched only by the way she throws herself into Belarius's backwoods persona. The gritty speaking she sometimes employs is copied by Linklater when he's donned the silly above-mentioned wig and becomes goofy Cloten. The business he does with an outsized sword during his encounter with Furr's manly Guiderius is a hoot.

At no point do the characterizations pall--not Page's or Rabe's, Linklater's, Burton's, Esparza's, Bougere's, Furr's or Ming-Trent's. Once again the Rabe-Linklater pairing pays off. Though some say last year's Beatrice-Benedick go under Sullivan's guidance was slightly less persuasive than usual, this year they're showing off their versatility as if they're executing mesmerizing magicians' tricks. Furr and Ming-Trent are the kind of ebullient players visibly thrilled to be tackling their lines. Furr, by the way, acts as a pre-show audience wrangler prepping two groups of spectators seated on the stage for whatever comes their way.

Not to be overlooked, Steven Skybell, always the reliable Public Theater Shakespearean, once gain proves his mettle. He's eminently proper and loyal as Posthumus's manservant, but he does some right-quick costume changes (almost everyone here does) to play Philario's French chum and, along with most of the other troupe members, appear in all sorts of unexpected walk-ons.

This is director Sullivan's ninth Shakespeare farrago for the Public. It's not quite accurate to say he only gets better, since he's always at the top of his formidable form--and in almost any genre. This time, however, perhaps because he's feeling fancy-free with the prolix, anfractuous Cymbeline, he keeps the surprises popping, not the least of which is an upstage four-man band that Matt Gallagher leads through Kitt's original score. Btw, that's Gallagher playing accordion at one point.

Cymbeline is one of the Shakespeare canon that doesn't get shot at audiences all that often. It's rarely done, but here it's done to a rare turn. For that, all thanks to Sullivan and everyone here associated with him.