nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
September 7, 2011
There's something remarkably bizarre about Fiasco Theatre's delightful production of Shakespeare's late "problem play" Cymbeline. Maybe it's that the company's ironical embrace of the play's various tonal contradictions and over-stuffed plot doesn't preclude a slew of honest emotion that will surface suddenly, without conventional set-up. Maybe it's that the extreme artificiality in the conception, where the company of six runs its own transitions in plain sight, only enhances the show's innate professional tightness. But really, it's all of this manifested in the intense focus of Fiasco's commitment to one another onstage, a palpable simpatico that mines from this wonderfully strange play marvelous results.
There's lots of companies that can accomplish this kind of effect, companies that, to varying degrees, utilize the concept of devised work to present holistic theatre. It's just that you don't often see those companies do Shakespeare. Reading this show's history—a group of recent Brown-Trinity MFAs who self-produced the play, then attracted Theatre for a New Audience to aid its development—I have to wonder how much of the show's perfected rag-tag quality was intentionally wrought and how much was a product of limited resources in the early stages. Not that it matters. In fact, the looseness of the show, with its minimal props and set pieces and small company sitting upstage in plain sight, playing live music to mark transitions, alternating characters and costumes with gusto, is both the show's charm and a strong argument for how to do Shakespeare. By stressing the artificiality, there quickly becomes no distraction from the text and character dynamics, and what do you know, but it seems we actually understand everything that's being spoken!
But I digress from praising sufficiently the work of this company. Their hands are all over the work. Co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld are engaged on so many levels of production, as actors, fight director, and music director, that you'd expect this to be a piece heavily sculpted by strict-visioned artists. Maybe it is, but the energy of the crew, each of whom has wonderful and memorable moments, many of whom sing the live songs to each other more than to us, suggests that this play was built from a multitude of perspectives all honed in on the wildness of what I never realized before is a pretty incredible text.
Which isn't to say that Cymbeline is essential Shakespeare (read its summary here if you'd like), and maybe that's the only minor downside I can offer to those skeptical of long-winded WS shows. There are most assuredly long-winded scenes and speeches, many of which lack the dazzling quality that usually justifies his writing when its gone past its story purposes, but for the most part the story is the center here, clipping along with grand melodramatic twists, and with an ideal rhythm that feeds a bustling final hour.
By refusing to take themselves too seriously in the staging of the play, Fiasco pays significant credence to a play that could be extraordinarily easy to write off otherwise. There's a lesson in staging Shakespeare in their show, and I'd be curious to see their approach lent to some of the heavier work, to see whether full commitment to artificiality and a transparently multi-cast company might add new layers to Lear. Maybe it wouldn't, of course, but if it were anything like this Cymbeline, I suspect it'd prove a whole hell of a lot of fun.