Feature at The New York Times
LIKE a clumsy kid in the schoolyard Shakespeare’s late play “Cymbeline” has suffered plenty of bullying. George Bernard Shaw called it “exasperating beyond all tolerance.” Henry James named it “a florid fairy tale.” And Samuel Johnson, its chief tormenter, said that to discuss the play “were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”
Even the script itself seems aware of its absurdities: its banishments, beheadings, kidnappings, wars and reunions. In the opening scene a courtier vainly assures the audience that this play, “may well be laughed at,/Yet is it true.” Hardly. The tender strangeness of other Shakespeare plays — Hamlet’s sea voyage, the animate statue in “The Winter’s Tale” — must yield to “Cymbeline’s” final act, which discloses more than two dozen improbable secrets with machine-gun speed.
Despite these flaws — and maybe because of them — Fiasco Theater, a plucky New York sextet, can’t resist the play. In the past two years Fiasco has staged three runs of “Cymbeline” and has resuscitated it again at Barrow Street Theater in the West Village, where it is in previews and is set to open Thursday.
Fiasco’s success is, like “Cymbeline,” something of a fairy tale. Sitting in a sunlit Times Square rehearsal space where the company was readying the show for its new engagement, Ben Steinfeld, a company member, said: “Our story is preposterous. It’s hard to believe.” Yet it is true.
In the summer of 2009 three recent graduates of the Brown/Trinity Rep M.F.A. program in acting decided to put on a show. “We were all pretty much unemployed,” said Jessie Austrian, who plays the heroine, Imogen. “And we thought doing something together would be more satisfying and fun than waiting for someone else to put us into a play.”
Mr. Steinfeld, Ms. Austrian and her fiancé, Noah Brody, had recently completed a workshop production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” a play they thought “was maybe not Shakespeare’s greatest,” Mr. Brody said, “but we fell in love with it.” So they sought another underrated Shakespeare play and rounded up three more Brown M.F.A. graduates to complete a cast of six.
Not everyone was taken with “Cymbeline” right away. Andy Grotelueschen said he turned to Mr. Brody after the first reading and asked, “Is it too late to change the show we’re doing?”
Only Ms. Austrian and Mr. Brody, who plays Imogen’s husband, portray principally only one character. The remaining four actors shoulder the 21 other major roles, as well as “Lords, Ladies, Roman Senators, Tribunes, a Dutch Gentleman, a Spanish Gentleman, a Soothsayer, Musicians, Officers, Captains, Soldiers, Messengers, and other Attendants.” One actor, Paul L. Coffey, seems to appear as a different person in nearly every scene.
The company effects these transformations with a few costumes and a minimal lighting plot. A single trunk and a versatile bed sheet supply the setting. The resulting show is as lucid as it is imaginative — and often nearly magical.
After a whirlwind three weeks of rehearsal — held at night and on weekends when the cast members could leave their work teaching, temping and laboring at a pickle factory — the first “Cymbeline” opened in September 2009 at Access Theater. “The first preview was the second time we’d run it all the way through,” Mr. Coffey recalled. Audiences hovered near the single digits until a strong review in The New York Times drew ticket buyers and industry scouts, selling out the run. Fiasco then took a five-week break and brought the show back in November.
The company remembers those Access weeks as happy, if exhausting. “We were doing everything,” Ms. Austrian said. “We were setting up the chairs, we were sweeping the floor, we were counting the box office, we were selling the T-shirts. And then every night after the show Noah and I would take the laundry home to our apartment.” Mr. Brody added, “We would say, ‘Someday we’re not going to have to do our own laundry.’ ”
That day came sooner than expected.
Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, saw an early performance and invited the company to a meeting. Mr. Steinfeld recalled: “He said: ‘Let’s cut to the chase. I want to produce you next year as part of our season.’ Then it’s all a blur. The next thing I remember is an hour later, being out in the hallway with Paul, jumping up and down for joy.”
Theater for a New Audience, whose mission it is to develop and make vital the performance and study of Shakespeare and classic drama, has sometimes taken on productions that already exist, but only from artists with whom it has a history, like Peter Brook or Robert Woodruff. But Mr. Horowitz said that in watching Fiasco’s “Cymbeline”: “I was very taken with the way they worked as collaborators onstage. I really felt there was a company there.”
Mr. Horowitz granted Fiasco another full rehearsal period and introduced the company to various teachers, designers and advisers to help transform the show into “something deeper, richer, more complex,” that could fill the 499-seat New Victory Theater, where it opened in January 2011 to critical praise. Between the second Access run and the New Victory stint, three Fiasco members made Broadway debuts (Emily Young and Mr. Steinfeld in “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” Ms. Austrian in “Lend Me a Tenor”) and the others have done regional work. But none of them hesitated when Mr. Horowitz and Barrow Street offered them a chance to perform “Cymbeline” again, even though it meant turning down other auditions and jobs.
Ms. Young said: “I had this realization last year while I was working on Broadway that I was really, actually living the dream. But it wasn’t enough. I want to be at the center of creating work. I want to keep working with this ensemble.”
She’ll have plenty of opportunity, as the company has at least a year of projects ahead, including another Shakespeare workshop and a musical. But the fairy tale doesn’t end there. The Barrow Street run conflicted with the date of Ms. Austrian and Mr. Brody’s long-planned October wedding, which will feature Mr. Steinfeld as officiant and Mr. Grotelueschen as “worst man.” There was some nervous talk of understudies, rescheduling and catering deposits, but the producers simply gave everyone the weekend off.
How’s that for a happy ending?
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 11, 2011
An article last Sunday about Fiasco Theater, a troupe known for its productions of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” misattributed a quote about “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” It was Noah Brody, a member of the troupe, who said it “was maybe not Shakespeare’s greatest,” not Ben Steinfeld, another Fiasco actor. The article also misstates how many roles Mr. Brody plays in “Cymbeline.” He principally plays Imogen’s husband, but he also portrays other characters. The article also misstates in which play Jessie Austrian, another Fiasco member, made her Broadway debut. It was “Lend Me a Tenor,” not “The Importance of Being Earnest.”