In the run-up to The Ninth World Shakespeare Congress in Prague I posted a selection of blogs from grant winners looking forward to that event. Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting a selection of blogs from some more of those grant winners. This week’s contribution comes from Emma Firestone, who is studying for a Ph.D at Cambridge University, UK.
Just thought I’d take advantage of this bloggers’ platform to spread some international hype for Fiasco Theater Company’s Cymbeline, an exceptionally worthy show now playing in downtown Manhattan.
Mind you, this Cymbeline is not exactly under the radar—a fact inconsistent with its modest production stats: zero scene changes, props in the single digits (including a trunk multicast as a cave entrance, mountain landscape, magicians-box-like beheading device, and [hysterically] trunk and bed simultaneously), and a cast of just six, all recent grads of the same Masters in Acting program. Yet incredibly, the current staging marks this production’s fourth run, though its first as a commercial venture: following a premiere at TriBeCa’s Access Theater in Autumn 2009, it returned for a five-night encore, returned again in early 2011 at the New Victory Theater in Times Square (next door to Broadway’s Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, a very different sort of fiasco), and now finds itself settling into an 18-week run at the reputable Barrow Theater in the West Village. As far as I can gather, the show owes its prolonged stage life entirely to critical acclaim, popular interest, and the support of the nonprofit Shakespeare institution Theater for a New Audience. This situation, while sadly atypical of American independent theater at large, is inspiring in itself, not to mention a serious endorsement of Fiasco’s achievement.
And what an achievement it is. This is one of the most astute, intelligible, and genuinely entertaining versions of a Shakespeare play that I have ever seen: anchored in uniformly strong performances by actors who wear their [multiple] talents lightly; assisted greatly by their willingness to speak verse instead of parsing, pummeling or apologizing for it; and bolstered by super-minimalist staging that is frequently ingenious but never self-satisfied. When Iachimo (Ben Steinfeld, a co-director) climbs into and lowers the lid of that trunk, upon which Imogen (Jessie Austrian) takes a slumbering perch, the audience enjoys an incredulous pause: now how is this going to work? Suddenly, Mr. Steinfeld thrusts his body through an invisible side panel and out across the stage floor, his expression registering relief, triumph, and slight bewilderment at how he could have managed to pursue his damaging plot all the way into the bedchamber itself. The ruse expertly elides actor and role, deepening and expanding our interest in the character, who now appears at once absurd, avaricious and curiously, pathetically helpless. Furthermore, it anticipates the complexities of the scene that follows, in which Iachimo itemizes Imogen’s bedroom and body with a relish that is too contrived to be menacing, yet too intense to really be comic.
There are many other such moments, in which staging choices motivated (one presumes) by frugality work nicely to aid our understanding of character and plot. In the midst of actively plotting with Pisanio (Paul L. Coffey) to continue to Milford Haven in male disguise, Imogen pulls down her skirt to reveal that she already sports a pair of men’s breeches—a move that suits the character’s endearing over-earnestness, and makes the line “I see into thy end, and am almost a man already” that much funnier. Elsewhere, in the first Welsh Countryside scene, the line “Now for our morning sport” is revised to “Now for our morning practice”—prompting the stolen princes (Mr. Steinfeld and Mr. Coffey again) and their foster-parent (here called Belaria and played by Emily Young) to produce banjo & guitar and expertly pick out an Appalachian-style folk song. Incongruous, yes, but not trite: after all, our belief that “nature prompts these boys/ In simple and low things to prince it much” is surely more sincere for our having observed the boys exercise some real talent, than would have been possible had they pursued more conventional stage business (trotting around the stage, flourishing fake weapons, &c.). What might have felt gratuitous in others’ hands is wonderfully effective here.
Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, Cymbeline has great prospects for suggestive double-casting, some of which have proven attractive to actors in recent years—for instance, Tom Hiddleston in a brilliant Posthumus-Cloten/Ego-Id performance for Cheek by Jowl in 2007. Fiasco’s doubling choices seem based more on its ensemble’s diverse abilities than on thematic pertinence, but this is a perfectly just strategy that yields some great results. Andy Grotelueschen, the cast’s ablest comedian and resident Very Big Guy, is bullish and intimidating as King Cymbeline, and then ludicrously oversized as Cloten. (He is also alarmingly good at playing his own severed head.) His portrayal of Cymbeline’s long, long climb out of ignorance and towards a spectacular, improbable reunion is both the show’s comic highpoint and dramatic centerpiece: one wonders why more Cymbelines don’t have “Did you e’er meet?” as the line of the night. As Iachimo Mr. Steinfeld is a revelation, communicating through verse-handling alone that Iachimo acts more from insecurity and shadowy impulse than from any real investment in Posthumus’ ruin. He also makes a fine jaded Arviragus, and his transitions between these characters in the play’s denouement are model instances of how to establish identity in mere seconds. Ms. Young slightly misconceives her Belaria as a dotty windbag-type, but her gift for combining a broad acting style with linguistic acuity (and making slinkiness look graceful) prevents her Queen from tipping any farther into caricature than necessary. Mr. Coffey shows the most range of all, turning up as a jocular Philario, proud-yet-humble Guiderius, touchingly distressed Pisanio, and more.
The actors playing the couple at Cymbeline’s center are less ambitiously multicast, if no less overworked (Mr. Brody co-directed the show and choreographed its excellent fights; Ms. Austrian is a company co-founder). Both do well in challenging roles. Ms. Austrian as Imogen is lovely, accessible, and an unabashed geek: a good pitch for this character, though I wished for more shades of vulnerability or defeat in her Fidele disguise (cum alter ego) later in the play. Posthumus—part credible soldier, part impulsive overgrown adolescent—is even harder to crack, and Mr. Brody does solid work, slicking his character’s real pain at Imogen’s supposed faithlessness with a thin film of bathos. He also has the square jaw, warm eyes and bland expression of a soap-opera doctor, a look befitting the character’s peculiar combination of histrionics and blankness.
Considering how well Fiasco handles so many of Cymbeline’s genuine textual-structural difficulties, it might seem petty to quibble with some of their choices respecting cuts to the script. And to be sure, their interventions are quite modest, relative to what their cast-size might have licensed. The decision to pare down the dialogue between Cloten’s servants and give the remaining lines to Pisanio, and to revise the opening dialogue between two ‘Gentlemen’ into a prologue spoken by one actor, are sensible and effective enough. Less successful, though, is the substantial cutting of Posthumus’ role in Act 5. He is permitted to express some manly remorse on receiving the bloody cloth, but his plan to fight for Britain, then disguise himself as an Italian and submit to arrest, is patchily excised. More disappointingly, this Cymbeline has no jailor or jailing, and correspondingly no Jupiter, no Eagle, and no Spirits of the Leonati. Maybe the dream-vision-plus-deus ex machina struck the directors as one dramaturgical hurdle too many, or maybe Mr. Brody found himself stretched too thin by creative and production tasks to play Posthumus to completion. Nevertheless, such was my regard for the company’s potential and imagination that I was sorry to miss seeing what they might have done with this sequence of notorious theatrical coups. Perhaps Fiasco will address the omissions in revival number five?
All in all, though, this is a really splendid piece of theater. It is modestly conceived, painstakingly executed, and performed with a level of confidence, good humor, and lack of pretense as appealing as it is unusual. The actors spend their offstage time seated around the perimeter of the playing space, generating sound and music effects and assisting each other with props and costume changes; their dedication and ease as an ensemble is palpable and touching. Fiasco’s Cymbeline is a shining example of smart, content-driven, economy-conscious Shakespeare performance. And what other kind, really, is more deserving of recognition and praise?
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (along with Charles University, Prague, and The International Shakespeare Association) sponsored individuals from Argentina, Romania, Hungary, India, Russia, Canada, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, and Chile to attend the World Shakespeare Congress 2011. Make sure that you follow this series to hear from more of our award winners who will be talking about the ways in which Shakespeare is a subject for research, performance, and conversation across the globe.