nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
January 15, 2011
Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is not one of the great crowd pleasers, nor do theatre folk themselves often embrace the play. Overcoming the particular challenges of this work won’t give the rarefied pay-off of the arduous King Lear, and yet it can't be called all comic confection, either. Familiar devices and characters from the canon are paraded one after another: mistaken identities, the life-changing letter, a stupefying potion, the evil stepmother, the star-crossed lovers, the cross-dressing heroine, the long-lost princes... all delivered in a plot so convoluted, none of it hangs together until the final ten minutes, and this through an absurd number of revelations that don’t make even the slightest attempt at verisimilitude. In the words of literary critic Frank Kermode, "It might even be called a fantastic design made by a past-master for the sake of showing that he could do pretty well anything.” Shakespeare himself gives a knowing wink: “When shall I hear all through?" exclaims Cymbeline as yet another piece of the puzzle is revealed.
And yet, amid this constant play with theatrical conceits, there are small scenes of genuine dramatic tension (albeit amended by the end): the menace of war, the murderous jealousy of a betrayed husband, friends mourning for a young life taken too soon. So what to do with this odd bird, how to balance all of these elements?
Fiasco Productions opts for a production driven above all by constant action. Six actors play fourteen characters, an approach that, with some judicious editing of the text, works surprisingly well in keeping all of the various strands clear. Simple props serve as visual shortcuts to the characters (thick glasses for the physician, a crown for the king). It’s an approach that takes up Shakespeare’s knowing wink, delivered with a feeling of spontaneity and improvisation—the clunky wooden boxes that make up the set can be anything from imperial throne to country hovel. There would be a risk of stripping away too much without the company’s evident training and devoted performance, anchored in the language itself. The command of body language, both in the expression of characters and the relationships between them, is natural, nuanced, and revealing. Andy Grotelueschen is magnetic and irresistible in his alternating roles of angry king and clumsy wooer, while Paul L. Coffey does not even need a change of costume, his transformations from loyal servant to Roman general are so corporally complete.
Without much visual richness on stage, the fairy tale atmosphere that is meant to infuse the world of Cymbeline is lost. With the last scene requiring all of the characters on stage, there is also an inevitable breakdown in the careful work to keep each distinct. While the quick changes are entertaining, the spell is broken, though perhaps this is in keeping with the direction of the production. Similarly, musical additions with a country-Appalachian flare showcase the cast’s considerable musical talent but do not illuminate the world of the play.
This production is the off-Broadway debut of Fiasco Productions, which was founded in 2007. After enthusiastic reception of the production downtown, Theatre for a New Audience brought the small company to the New Victory Theatre. It is clearly a project born of a devotion to performing Shakespeare for its own sake, and this simple pleasure shines through every scene.