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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Barrow Street Theater


  Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young and Paul L. Coffey/ Ph: Gerry Goodstein

Few of the current big Broadway hits pack as much creativity and entertainment into an evening as the Fiasco Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s late dark romance Cymbeline, which is being performed at off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village through the end of the year. At half the cost of an uptown ticket audiences get to see Shakespeare’s seldom-performed opaque fairy tale acted by a protean cast of six talented young players, all doubling or tripling roles, who honed their acting prowess at Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A.’s acting program, then formed their own Fiasco Theater Company in 2007.

Cymbeline is a play from Shakespeare’s last quartet, which also includes Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. The play’s loosely constructed plot concerns King Cymbeline (Andy Grotelueschen) ,who reigned in Britain during the time of Augustus Caesar. When his wife mysteriously died, their three children were infants; the two boys were kidnapped leaving only the eldest, a beautiful daughter Imogen (Jessie Austrian), at home to be brought up by the King’s second wife, an evil stepmother Queen (Emily Young). The Queen might of hated Imogen, but even so tries to force her into marrying Cloten, her ill-mannered son from a previous marriage, and thus becoming heir to King Cymbeline’s crown.

Imogen is in love with her childhood sweetheart Posthumus (Noah Brody), and marries him secretly. When the king finds out of her union to a lowly subject he banishes Posthumus from Britain and Imogen forever. In Rome Posthumus insults his Roman pals by bragging about Imogen’s abiding fidelity back in Britain. Iachimo (Ben Steinfeld), a Roman doubting Imogen’s constancy, puts Postumus up to a wager saying he will travel to Britain in an attempt to break Imogen’s honor and win the bet, thus setting Shakespeare’s unwielding tale into motion.

Under the inspired co-direction of Brody and Steinfeld, the company plays the roster of roles with ease, changing character by donning a jacket or hat and taking up a new prop. This Cymbeline is not only in perpetual motion, but fresh and bright and true enough to Shakespeare to please even the diehard purist. Nothing is botched. It is Shakespeare without pretense or pomp. There are no stilted moments in this production that somehow manages to get all of the play’s plots and subplots of romance and deception and the fantastic, tied together with complete clarity by the final curtain. One of the many charms about this production is how the entire company works hard and effectively to find what Shakespeare wrote in 1609 and evoke it in a fresh way for audiences in 2011.

Occasionally, in order to make it meaningful, they cut passages or alter a line, but always hang on to the play’s essence. There is lots of fun to be had at this Cymbeline; in the program the co-directors refer to the play as “a tragedy gone right.” There are also some wonderful musical interludes and songs, in keeping with the spirit of the play. Yet the success of this Cymbeline always falls back to the six actors who add enough of their own wit to make scene after scene newly diverting even for those who have never read or seen the play before.

The key is they begin by speaking every line plainly enough and naturally enough to make it comprehensible. This seems to be a basic rule of the Fiasco Company players. They may vary in their ability to make some of the passages melodious, but they project their voices and speak as actors, not elocutionists. In the past half century it is interesting to see how the American actor has stopped struggling with Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and come to speak his poetic lines with a natural ease. Although this production is geared to action and points up the play’s humor, there are a few poetic passages and the actors who get to speak them do so with a voice and ear for melody.

Like in most of Shakespeare’s later works we can see in this Cymbeline the Bard repeating some familiar plot devices, like lost children and exiled lovers. Imogen disguising herself as a boy when she travels to meet Posthumus is a trick he used in many of his early comedies. Even a headless corpse appears, brilliantly imagined here, a stunt I remember from Henry VI.

This minimalist Cymbeline has been artfully and sparsely designed by Jean-Guy Lecat and is centered around a fabulous wooden trunk designed by Jacque Roy, which magically serves myriad purposes throughout the play– like a cave, a bed, a casket, even a pool table. The constantly changing costumes in a variety of autumnal colors are by Whitney Locher, and the spot-on lighting is by Tim Cryan.

There is a united ensemble feel to every element in this highly commendable production of one of Shakespeare’s neglected works.

A life-imitates-art footnote: The actors playing Imogen (Austrian) and Posthumus (Brody), who tie the knot in the play eight times a week, were married off stage to one another on Oct. 9.


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