Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, June 24, 2018

cymbeline_0089Jessie Austrian as Imogen and Noah Brody as Posthumus share a tender moment in a scene from Fiasco Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ at the Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village. (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)

NEW YORK – Few of the current big Broadway hits pack as much creativity and entertainment into an evening as the Fiasco Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s late dark romance "Cymbeline," which is at off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village through Dec. 31. For half the cost of an uptown ticket, audiences get to see Shakespeare’s seldom-performed opaque fairy tale acted by a protean cast of six talented young players, all doubling or tripling roles, who honed their acting prowess at Brown University/Trinity Repertory Consortium MFA acting program, then formed their own Fiasco Theater company in 2007.

"Cymbeline" is a play from Shakespeare’s last quartet, which also includes "Pericles," "The Winter’s Tale" and "The Tempest." The play’s loosely constructed plot concerns King Cymbeline (Andy Grotelueschen), who reigned in Britain during the time of Augustus Caesar. When his wife mysteriously died, their three children were infants; and the two boys were kidnapped. That left only the eldest, the beautiful daughter Imogen (Jessie Austrian), at home to be brought up by the King’s second wife, an evil stepmother Queen (Emily Young). The Queen might have hated Imogen, but even so, she tries to force her into marrying Cloten, her ill-mannered son from a previous marriage, which would make him heir to King Cymbeline’s crown.

Imogen is in love with her childhood sweetheart Posthumus (Noah Brody), and marries him secretly. When the king learns of her union to a lowly subject, he banishes Posthumus from Britain and from Imogen forever. After fleeing to Rome, Posthumus insults his Roman pals by bragging about Imogen’s abiding fidelity back in Britain. Iachimo (Ben Steinfeld), a Roman doubting Imogen’s constancy, puts Postumus up to a wager, saying he will travel to Britain in an attempt to break Imogen’s honor and win the bet, thus setting Shakespeare’s unwieldy tale into motion.

Under the inspired co-direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, the company plays the roster of roles with ease, changing character by donning a jacket or hat and taking up a new prop. This "Cymbeline" is not only in perpetual motion, but fresh and bright and true enough to Shakespeare to please even the diehard purist. The Fiasco Theater’s "Cymbeline" is no fiasco. Nothing is botched. It is Shakespeare without pretense or pomp. There are no stilted moments in this production, which somehow manages to get all of the play’s plots and subplots of romance and deception tied together with complete clarity by the final curtain. One of the many charms about this production is how the entire company works hard and effectively to find what Shakespeare wrote in 1609 and evoke it in a fresh way for audiences in 2011.

Occasionally, in order to make it meaningful, they cut passages or alter a line, but they always hang onto the sense, and frequently the nonsense, of the play. There is lots of fun to be had at this "Cymbeline"; in the program, the co-directors refer to the play as "a tragedy gone right." There are also some wonderful musical interludes and songs, in keeping with the spirit of the play. Yet the success of this "Cymbeline" always falls back to the six actors who add enough of their own wit to make scene after scene newly diverting even for those who have never read or seen the play before.

The key is that they begin by speaking every line plainly enough and naturally enough to make it comprehensible. This seems to be a basic rule of the Fiasco Theater players. They may vary in their ability to make some of the passages melodious, but they project their voices and speak as actors, not elocutionists. It is interesting to see how, in the past half century, the American actor has stopped struggling with Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter has and come to speak the Bard’s poetic lines with a natural ease. Although this production is geared to action and points up the play’s humor, there are a few poetic passages, and the actors who get to speak them do so with a voice and ear for melody.

As in most of Shakespeare’s later works, we can see in this "Cymbeline" the playwright’s repeating some familiar plot devices, such as lost children, exiled lovers, a female character’s disguising herself as a boy (as Imogen does to travel to Rome to see Posthumus), a trick he used in many of his early comedies. Even a headless corpse appears, brilliantly imagined here, a stunt I remember from "Henry VI."

This minimalist "Cymbeline" has been artfully and sparsely designed by Jean-Guy Lecat. It is centered around a fabulous wooden trunk designed by Jacque Roy that magically serves myriad purposes throughout the play – as a cave, a bed, a casket, even a pool table. The constantly changing costumes in a variety of autumnal colors are by Whitney Locher, and the spot-on lighting is by Tim Cryan.

There is a united ensemble feel to every element in this highly commendable production of one of Shakespeare’s neglected works.

A life-imitates-art footnote: The actors playing Imogen, Jessie Austrian; and Posthumus, Noah Brody; who tie the knot in the play eight times a week, were married off-stage to one another on Oct. 9.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.