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Starry Nights at ‘Cymbeline’

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From left: John Pankow, Jonathan Cake, Phylicia Rashad, John Cullum, Michael Cerveris, and Martha Plimpton, in costumes by Jess Goldstein and in front of a set designed by Michael Yeargan.  

Audiences have Lincoln Center—and its separate contract with the stagehands—to thank for pooling some of Broadway’s greatest talent on a single stage during the strike. Not only do the principals in Cymbeline (opening December 2) include Michael Cerveris, Martha Plimpton, and Phylicia Rashad as the Queen, but 23 other actors make up what Cerveris calls “a really deep bench” in this lavish production. All this for a late, “minor” Shakespeare play with a tortured plot that haphazardly cobbles together all of the Bard’s great themes. So why did they do it? “People don’t have a favorite Posthumus they’ve ever seen,” says Cerveris of the jealousy-racked, banished husband he plays opposite Plimpton’s princess. “It’s like suddenly being told there’s a Beethoven symphony that no one’s ever seen before.” Besides, he says, “any production that’s going to cast Martha and me as the romantic couple is not going to be your usual Shakespeare.” Plimpton, whose increasingly meaty gigs include last season’s The Coast of Utopia, had faith in Lincoln Center, but John Cullum, the Northern Exposure alum who plays the bombastic king, was a little warier at first, asking “What the hell, why is [director Mark Lamos] doing this play?” Then he began to see that “it was more like a movie, with broad jumps.” The whirlwind of small scenes means lots of backstage downtime for actors, often spent in games of Boggle and poker. Yet there are few minor roles in this play, something that greatly appealed to Jonathan Cake, the Iago-like villain. “It can,” he says, “encompass a brutish clown all the way to the most evolved form of being.”


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