Review at The Faster Times
From the moment the six members of the Fiasco Theater tell us to turn off our cell phones by singing a polished melody, it is clear these entertainers could spin magic from a bologna sandwich. This is a good thing, because “Cymbeline” may come closer to a bologna sandwich than any other play by William Shakespeare.
Actually, one of the great lessons that this year of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” has taught me is how difficult it would be to pick the Bard’s worst.
The plot of “Cymbeline” is so convoluted it makes me feel guilty for having ridiculed the ones in The Winter’s Tale and All’s Well That Ends Well. And yet (another lesson), in all three cases, the productions drew beauty from the chaos. This theatergoers would expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company and from the New York Shakespeare Festival, but it might seem surprising from a new company that calls itself Fiasco.
Yet, part of the joy of the Fiasco’s production of “Cymbeline” is that there are two fairy tales involved. The first is the plot of “Cymbeline,” a late Shakespearean romance that takes place in England and Italy at a time when Rome ruled the known world, and that involves a foolish king, a scheming queen and her doltish son, a cross-dressing princess, a loyal but crafty servant, a beheading, much feelings of betrayal and misunderstanding, and a last scene in which 17 loose ends and crises are tied up or reversed, allowing for a happily ever after.
The second fairy tale is that of six recent graduates of Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A. acting program who put on an Off-Off Broadway production of one of Shakespeare’s least-performed plays using little more than a big trunk, a white sheet and a great deal of energy. They got universal raves during a two-week run at New Victory Theater – it was indeed a new victory – and are now embarked on an 18-week run at the Barrow Street Theater, opening tonight, having already been featured in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
It is much to the credit of the company that they include in the program rants against the play by such irreproachable critics as Samuel Johnson, George Bernard Shaw, and Henry James (who, the most positive of the three, basically calls it charming if you can forget that it makes no sense.)
The two directors offer a more life-affirming appraisal: “Cymbeline is a great deal of fun,” they begin their note in the program. “It’s also very strange.”
The six actors play the 15 characters as if they were action sequences. They seem to be enjoying themselves. It is wrong to single out any of the six, since this is classic ensemble acting, but I was struck by the expressions and subtle movements of Paul Coffey, who seems to play the greatest number of characters. I found hilarious his playful take on the beheading of the king’s step-son. (I realize that sounds bad.) The most charming aspect of the production is that it is laced with a handful of terrific songs that range from madrigals to bluegrass.
It is always a delight to discover new talent. It is no shock that three of the performers have already appeared on Broadway. Jessie Austrian (who plays the princess, Imogen — after which Shakespeare really should have named this play) was the replacement Gwendolyn in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Ben Steinfeld and Emily Young were in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” All six are sure to appear on stage again, one hopes as Fiasco, but inevitably in other productions as well. They are worth watching, but be warned: For all their wonderful performances, this still is “Cymbeline.”