Fiasco Theatre marvelously transforms Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”

Review at Third Coast Digest

Review at Third Coast Digest

Review at Third Coast Digest

The princess Imogen (Jessie Austrian, R), seen here planning with her friend and ally Pisanio (Paul L. Coffey) is the heart of Fiasco Theater’s phenomenal “Cymbeline.” Photo by Ari Mintz.

Do you know Shakespeare’s Cymbeline? Probably not. It comes with a plot so convoluted it’s hard to imagine a theater company daring enough to try it out on a paying audience.

Enter Fiasco Theater. Friday night, the company completed the task with flawless ease. They liftedCymbeline from a neglected Shakespearean oddity to one of the most eloquent, humorous and downright enjoyable plays I’ve ever seen performed.

The six Fiasco actors, based in New York City, appeared in Milwaukee cross-billed under Alverno Presents and the Marquette University theater program. They’ve been in residence for three weeks, and in that time, they gained a comfort on Marquette’s Helfaer Theatre stage you could notice and appreciate.

Cymbeline is hard to explain. Two lovers, the princess Imogen (Jessie Austrian) and the commoner Posthumus (Noah Brody, also a co-director), secretly wed. Her father, the British king Cymbeline (Patrick Mulryan), banishes her husband when he discovers the marriage. As Imogen tries to reunite with Posthumus, a scheming would-be seducer (Justin Blanchard, as Iachimo); a deceptive  stepmother/queen (Emily Young); and her dense, wooing, crown-seeking stepbrother (also Mulryan) trip her up, and Imogen must ultimately conspire with her faithful friend/servant Pisanio (Paul L. Coffey) to go into hiding as a boy. In the course of her adventures, she encounters her long-lost brothers, accidentally plays dead and helps save all of Britain from an invading Roman army.

The recrafting of Belaria (Emily Young, C) and her adopted, princely sons (Ben Steinfeld, L, not in Milwaukee cast; and Coffey, R) as a family band is only one of Fiasco’s brilliant moves. Photo by Ari Mintz.

Fiasco makes it all work. Austrian remains Imogen throughout, but all the other actors play at least two roles, cast strategically rather than thematically, so no actor plays two roles at once. But casting Young as both Belaria (a man, in Shakespeare’s original), who stole Cymbeline’s sons 20 years prior, and the evil queen is a clever thematic parallel – or a happy accident.

Fiasco’s actors color their characterizations with a healthy coat of archetype. The Queen is a wicked stepmother, Imogen’s stepbrother Cloten a Bond villain who thinks he’s Superman, Posthumus a gallant knight who loses his faith. This approach makes the action easier to follow – smart, given the tangled plot – and implicitly emphasizes the production’s themes of illusion and role-playing.

Orchestration and song (courtesy music/co-director Ben Steinfeld, not in the touring cast) amplify the already-potent production. Cast members sing both in and out of character. But the coup de theatre here (as if this production weren’t filled with them) is in turning Belaria and the princes into a rustic family band, complete with washboard. It’s great for smirks and smiles, especially when the disguised Imogen inadvertently becomes the third “brother” (she truly is a sibling). This set-up enables her eulogy to be a haunting elegy, the play’s most stunning piece of music.

And then there’s the “seventh actor”: Fiasco’s magical trunk. Turning Cymbeline’s most memorable visual (Iachimo hides in it to sneak into Imogen’s room) into a multipurpose prop is brilliant. In the course of the play, the trunk becomes a toilet, a cavern home, a throne, a mountain, a pool table, the means to behead a lead actor, a bed and a dozen more glorious things. Kudos to trunk designer Jacques Roy for crafting it, and kudos to the cast for having such fun with it.

Actually, kudos to the cast for having such fun in general. It’s obvious throughout, but rises to the forefront in the final scene, in which a dozen and a half revelations wrap up the play. This most challenges Fiasco’s conceit, as even the condensed version of Cymbeline they’ve created calls for 10 characters on stage at this point. But Fiasco really breaks loose, embracing the madness of their endeavor. The entire play would be worth seeing just for that short, whirlwind sequence.

That whirlwind sweeps out of Milwaukee tonight, but the memory of this unparalleled Cymbeline will linger on.

Fiasco Theatre performs Cymbeline twice more today (Saturday, Oct. 13), at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased online or at Marquette’s Helfaer Theatre box office.

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