Monday, September 12, 2011

The Original Fantastics

Fiasco Presents Cymbeline at the Barrow Street Theater

At the start of the Second Act of the Fiasco’s production of Cymbeline, now playing at the Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village, three characters break into a full-out Bluegrass number, replete with banjo, guitar and washboard. The song, like all the great Shakespeare songs, reminds us where we are in the play, examines characters’ dilemmas, and moves the plot along. My friend turned to me as it finished and enthused, “Now that’s the way to start Act II!”

Anyone who’s ever directed a play knows that the attack in Act II, the moment when you welcome the audience back into the world of the play is critical. This brilliant start of a brilliant Act II perfectly encapsulated the production’s strength: it is simply captivating.

Cymbeline is a difficult play to take seriously. A Monty Python-esque pastiche of Shakespeare’s best and worst moments, with characters, scenes and lines recognizable (yet no one’s sure if Cymbeline was written before or after any of them) from Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Cesar, King Lear, A Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night and even Piramus and Thisby, the play within Midsummer Night’s Dream, the work is seriously over-written and crowded with ridiculous plot twists and moments of absurdity that owe their souls to Commedia del’Arte.

And yet, so many productions do take it seriously, weighing productions down with overwrought performances of too-elaborate speeches, in a weight that belies the airiness of the script.

Which was why I loved the fairy tale world Mark Lamos constructed for it a few years ago, first at Hartford Stage, then at Lincoln Center. It was a visual feast, a delicious collage of light and energy and costume and sets that provided a joyous romp through an unreal world. But even Lamos’ production was bogged down in detail, taking itself seriously as a play with a message, a kind of prequel to Angels in America, Jupiter flying in on a golden eagle to bring his cautionary message: “No more your petty petty, petty spirits of regions low . . . offend our hearing!”

Well, the Fiasco production has cut that line. And, thank goodness, lots of other ones as well! Their production of Cymbeline has magically created a silly tale so rich, so electrifyingly, its message flies on the gossamer wings spun by brilliant staging, radiant acting, vivid music. This is a production of near-perfection, a Shakespearean melodramatic comedy on a plainly lit stage, where multitudinous settings are portrayed by a single wooden trunk; six players in fifteen roles, wearing simple but evocative costumes and speaking lines expertly cut and pasted, strut and fret their mere two hours upon the stage to thoroughly satisfy the details of a convoluted story. In the process, by singing a capella or accompanying themselves on a variety of folksy instruments, they smooth transitions, correct inconsistencies, and move the audience to respond with real emotion.

Because the play is carried by the actors, driven by a remarkably talented pair of directors (Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld), whose trust of the actors is exemplary, the most exceptional component of this exceptional production, is its ensemble. The players, generous with one another, attuned to one another, enmeshed with one another, manage to deliver a play that surprises in a very unexpected way.

The audience is drawn into, and then moved by, a ridiculously unbelievable tale because they receive the tale from an ensemble that entirely trusts one another and from actors who never lose sight of the fact that they embody characters not caricatures. Though there were some moments when one or another actor slipped a bit – as Posthumous (but strangely, never as the Roman), co-director Noah Brody mumbled his text; Emily Young took a bit too long to commit to her Queen’s evil, as though at this one performance she was going to play a more sympathetic witch, and then she seemed to have some trouble finding her Belar(ius)ria character after her songfest – to complain would be trivial nit-picking. These are actors with real chops, creating characters who jump to three-dimensional life even while speaking nonsense. Like their directors, they make bold choices and then they justify their every move.

The standout choice was apt casting of Jessie Austrian as Imogen and deciding she would have but one part to play. She is the hero of the story, the foundation on which all that is reasonable rests. Virtuous and vulnerable, sheltered and perhaps naïve, she makes a farcical journey through sadness and tragedy and learns through her own adversity how inconstant and untrusting men are

Thus may poor fools
Believe false teachers: though those that are betray'd
Do feel the treason sharply, yet the traitor
Stands in worse case of woe.

She finds the beheaded body of the man who by all appearances must be the lover who spurned her, and she is moved to pity him even while she scolds him. “O Posthumus! Alas, Where is thy head? Where’s that? . . This was my lord. . . . A very valiant Briton and a good.”

The moment when Imogen finds the beheaded body of Cloten-presumed-Posthumous, her husband, could have caused the actress to lose herself in the farce, but Austrian finds emotion deep within herself, and the result is that even in this most unbelievable of moments, Imogen is deeply credible, a girl reaching maturity in an epiphany that moves her audience to tears.

Austrian’s Imogen emerges from the experience with a healthy degree of skepticism. She forgives her loathsomely inept father, rejoices that her husband is alive to take her to his bed, welcomes the long lost brothers who nearly killed her. This is an Imogen made of strong stuff. She may have two brothers found, but if her father has half a brain, he’ll name her as his successor.

Pictured above: The cast of Fiasco's Cymbeline: Jessie Austrian(Imogen); Noah Brody(Co-Director/Posthumus/Roman Captain; Paul L. Coffey(Pisanio/Philario/Lucius/Guiderius); Andy Grotelueschen(Cymbeline/Cloten/Cornelius); Ben Steinfeld(Iachimo/Aviragus); Emily Young(Queen/Frenchman/Belaria). Photo courtesy of

No comments: