nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
September 20, 2009
Fiasco Theater's Cymbeline is a rare treat and excellent introduction to a play that can be quite a challenge to make sense of. Fully up to the richness of the text, this dynamic six person cast manages to deliver a production with some of the clearest, cleanest, and fastest Shakespeare that I have ever had the pleasure to watch. They basically grab play and audience together with gusto and take off at a full gallop.
Cymbeline is one of the later plays, inspired by legend and history, combining the Romans in Britain with all sorts of classic fairy tale archetypes—an evil stepmother, a craven stepson, and children stolen in infancy. In the midst of this glorious mess is a heroine so wonderful that George Bernard Shaw adored her despite finding the play "vulgar, foolish, offensive, indecent, and exasperating beyond all tolerance." But what GBS was simply too obstinate to see in this play has been richly caught and explored by directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld. They have sharpened the focus of plot and invested in the humanity of these characters. So while Imogen (Jessie Austrian) and Posthumus Leonatus (Noah Brody) are a lovely couple, they are equally young and stupid and easily fooled despite their love. So when it turns out that King Cymbeline's only daughter and heir has secretly married this worthy but poor ward of the court, it is quickly clear that although they will win out, there is going to be quite a mess getting there. And what a mess—the Romans are demanding renewed tribute, the Queen (Emily Young) is angling for her son (Andy Grotelueschen) to marry Imogen and become king, and the King has a history of being duped by his court that will come back to haunt him before the play's end.
Class has a strangely potent presence that has been nicely highlighted in this production, both in the subplot of Belaria (intelligent bit of cross casting) and her sons and with Leonatus's loyal servant Pisanio (Paul L. Coffey) having a wonderful grounding presence that exercises a saving common sense. Equally strong is where the production has reined in the play's excesses, so that villainous Iachimo (Ben Steinfeld) is solidly treacherous but does not overwhelm and take the play into the "Iachimo Show" but serves his turn and then is gone. There are occasional additions, most of which are not distracting and although I did not always care for the clown interjections of the talented Andy Grotelueschen, much of the audience certainly did enjoy them—and to be fair they are neither overly indulgent nor abundant.
What Fiasco has accomplished is all the more impressive for the simplicity with which it has been achieved. There are no cyclones of cloth, designerly tableaux, director-derived hit-the-audience-over-the-head images that sum up the play's moments, real water on stage effects, or any production shtick of that ilk. Instead six actors act—clearly communicating both story and language in such a way that the audience can follow the play's many twists without stumbling. The entire cast is strong and facile, moving well and as quick at transitioning characters as they are with scenes. The design is equally clean and clear with only what is necessary to support that story (especially well done in the incredibly wonderful lighting that emanates from a very limited spectrum of equipment by Tim Cryan) so that it comes as a bit of a lovely surprise that this production also incorporates significant musical direction (Ben Steinfeld). From the pleasant a cappella entreaty to turn off phones at the top of the show, through the songs inherent to the play as well as the additional tunes added for the Wales section, the music is a powerful addition and much more integral than usual as this fine cast is responsible for all of it.
You'd be a fool to miss it; Shakespeare done with such skill and verve is a treat and all too rare.