Theater Talkback: When a Bare Stage Fills The Theater

Cymbeline Review at Arts Beat, New York Times

Cymbeline Review at Arts Beat, New York Times

Cymbeline Review at Arts Beat, New York Times

Theatergoers, especially the kind who regard Broadway as Mecca, expect their seats to come with a breathtaking view. I mean of scenic scenery that gives its own spectacular performance, regardless of what’s happening in front of it. Not for nothing is the longest-running musical ever on Broadway, “The Phantom of the Opera,” a major eye-filler, replete with fat Belle Époque designs, the occasional falling chandelier and a stage-crossing gondola.

But for me, the most visually magical productions are often those in which the stage is a blank canvas, waiting to be written upon by the performers who inhabit it. Consider the exquisite example of the Fiasco Theater production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” which was first seen in New York last January at the New Victory Theater and which reopens Thursday night at the Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village.

A labyrinthine, continents-spanning, battle-packed, credulity-taking romance, set in the time of the Roman Empire, “Cymbeline” would seem to call for the scale and accoutrements of a Cecil B. DeMille epic. Fiasco has responded to the play’s demands with a cast of exactly six, with support provided by a sheet, a trunk and a few other multifarious props. Yet, as directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, this version of “Cymbeline” is the clearest and most truly enchanting that I’ve seen.

Doubling and trebling (and in some cases, quite a bit more-ing) in parts, the young actors here convey the authorial thrill of spinning substance out of air, of creating a world from within. From the beginning they implicitly ask us to participate in this process, to join them in their leaps of imagination. Theater, they remind us, is an act of collaboration between performers and their audiences, and the reality they conjure doesn’t exist without our willingness to believe in it.

A similar exchange of energy occurred (though with a bit more furniture) when Elevator Repair Service took its word-for-word production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” to the Public Theater last year. That show, “Gatz,”took place on a single, shabby set, which, through sheer force of the performers’ will (and ours, vicariously), was transformed into Gatsby’s pleasure place, the Plaza Hotel and the grungier environs that lay in between.

Jim Fletcher, left, and Scott Shepherd in "Gatz."Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesJim Fletcher, left, and Scott Shepherd in “Gatz.”

The central relationship here was between one great American novel and one average man (played by the brilliant Scott Shepherd), who reaches a point when Fitzgerald’s reality eclipses that of his own life. And in portraying that dialogue, “Gatz” suggested how much we contribute to our experience of any work of art. Mr. Shepherd’s gradual absorption into Fitzgerald’s worldview mirrored ours into that of Mr. Shepherd’s character. And it reminded us of how dynamic the relationship between art and its observers is. (Elevator Repair Service’s take on another epochal novel of the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway’s “Sun Also Rises” opens on Sunday night at the New York Theater Workshop.)

Of course, theater was relatively devoid of spectacle for long stretches of its history, from the Greek amphitheaters to Shakespeare’s “wooden o” of a stage. (Shakespeare’s Globe in London, the Thames-side facsimile of an Elizabethan theater, continues to remind of how complete a world can be summoned with Shakespeare’s language on bare boards.) In more recent years theatrical nakedness is more of a novelty, and it is often used to make a conceptual point. (Think of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” which in its scenic austerity evokes life as we live it as something ephemeral, a passing shadow on eternity.)

And sometimes a bare stage is to its actors what a little black dress is to a beautiful woman: a showcase for charms that require no camouflage. A 1995 adaptation of Graham Greene’s “Travels With My Aunt” featured four actors (including Jim Dale and Brian Murray), identically dressed, who took turns spinning Greene’s far-fetched narrative and becoming its various characters — in widely varying settings — through precise, virtuosic gestures and vocal inflections. When I think back on it, I can see – in physical detail – all sorts of scenes that were never visually present onstage. (It’s rather like converting a black-and-white film into specific colors when you recall it.)

Then there’s the current production of the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical “Chicago” – the longest-running revival in Broadway history – which uses nothing more than some smoke, a ladder, a few chairs and an onstage band to summon the jails, courtrooms and vaudeville houses of the bootleg era. What truly brings that world to pulsing life is the style of the singers and dancers (channeling the sensibility of Bob Fosse as recreated by Ann Reinking). Sometimes the razzle-dazzle (to borrow the title of one of the show’s songs) that is show biz requires nothing more than stark talent, and perhaps a pair of endless legs.

Many other examples come to my mind: the long-, long-running Off Broadway musical “The Fantasticks” or Richard Burton’s “Hamlet,” directed by John Gielgud (which I have seen only on film). And I’m sure you can add to that list endlessly. What are some of your memories of theater in which less was so much more?

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