Cymbeline, presented by Fiasco Theater and Theatre for a New Audience at the New Victory Theatre, New York City, January 28, 2011.
Bethany Packard, "Review of Cymbeline, presented by Fiasco Theater and Theatre for a New Audience at the New Victory Theatre, New York City, January 28, 2011". EMLS 15.3 (2011): 11. http://purl.org/emls/15-3/revcym.htm
Cast: Jessie Austrian (Imogen); Noah Brody (Posthumus / Roman Captain); Paul L. Coffey (Pisanio / Philario / Caius Lucius / Guiderius); Andy Grotelueschen (Cymbeline / Cloten / Cornelius); Ben Steinfeld (Iachimo / Arviragus); Emily Young (Queen / Frenchman / Belaria)
Creative Team: Noah Brody & Ben Steinfeld (Directors); Jean-Guy Lecat (Scenic Designer); Whitney Locher (Costume Designer); Tim Cryan (Lighting Designer); Jacques Roy (Fabulous Trunk); Cicely Berry & Robert Neff Williams (Vocal & Text Consultants); Noah Brody (Fight Director); Ben Steinfeld (Music Director); Anne Michelson (Production Stage Manager)
- Fiasco Theater’s production of Cymbeline - under the auspices of Theatre for a New Audience – intensely engaged its audience in Shakespeare’s complicated romance. I have rarely heard an audience respond so vocally so frequently to a performance; there were gasps of surprise and regular outbursts of very loud laughter. The actors and directors achieved this level of engagement through a combination of strong performances and a deliberate exposure of theatrical artifices and conventions. The sparse but vivid production epitomized the art of doing a lot with a little. For example, with only six actors available, everyone, except for Jessie Austrian as Imogen, doubled and tripled parts, while Noah Brody (Posthumus) and Ben Steinfeld (Iachimo) also directed. This minimalist approach extended to Jean-Guy Lecat’s set, which shrunk the stage of the New Victory Theater. All of the action took place within a wooden ring in its center, giving the production its own little globe. When not “on stage” the actors sat on ottomans in a semicircle behind it. They were constantly in view, except during intermission. Even the set pieces – wooden crates and a white sheet – did double duty, becoming all manner of furniture, landscape, and even clothing. All elements of the production contributed to the stripping away of theatrical illusion, yet even as these choices encouraged viewers to notice the actors playing the characters, they also highlighted key story elements. The audience’s dual awareness of both performance and imaginative tale resulted in a highly involving experience.
- By bringing backstage on stage, the members of Fiasco Theater simultaneously offered thematic complications and connotations and made plot twists very overt and recognizable. The casting choices took advantage of the nuances doubling can create. For example, Andy Grotelueschen played both a stubborn king Cymbeline and a swaggering, clueless Cloten. His presence could thus invoke both Imogen’s father and her very unwanted suitor, both the Queen’s manipulated husband and her bully of a son. This casting necessarily required quick costume changes, which were enabled by the simplicity of Whitney Locher’s vaguely fairytale-like dresses, breeches, boots and cloaks. All of these changes were swiftly performed in view of the audience, along with a few quick prop exchanges. The actors highlighted these changes of character (and often also of scene) and thus created strong signals to the audience indicating which character was which and where they all were (Britain or Italy, court or countryside). The doubling and visible costume changes also highlighted the disguise element of the play. While Jessie Austrian had only one character to play, when Imogen took on the Fidele disguise Austrian’s costume change mirrored those made by her fellow actors as they assumed different roles. Disguises, misidentifications, and revelations are part of the play’s fabric at all levels. For example, Belaria (changed from Belarius and played by Emily Young), Guiderius and Arviragus are not who they seem to be, yet the princes’ royal backgrounds persistently emerge despite appearances. Thus a major staging choice in the production suggestively mirrored Shakespeare’s plot points and highlighted thematic concerns.
- In the play’s final scene the actors put on a tour de force demonstration of the efficacy of making the mechanics of theater transparent for the audience. As true identities were revealed and characters’ fates were explained, almost all of the play’s characters needed to appear together. The audience reacted gleefully each time actors swapped parts and clearly understood and enjoyed each doubling relationship. To give one example that elicited an especially big response, Paul L. Coffey leapt (both literally and figuratively) from telling what he knew about Cloten’s fate in the role of Pisanio, “What became of him / I further know not” (V.v.285-6), to immediately declaring in the role of Guiderius: “Let me end the story: / I slew him there” (286-7).
In addition to their doubling, the actors further multitasked by providing the performance’s music. Around their stools were both costume pieces and the musical instruments they used to provide both incidental music and transitional music that could signal, for example, shifts from Britain to Rome. The introduction of Belaria, Guiderius and Arviragus also involved music that highlighted their rural setting far from the backstabbing of court life. When they saluted the morning they also practiced their instruments and played a country tune on banjo, guitar, and washboard. Ben Steinfeld, Paul L. Coffey, and Emily Young harmonized in these roles again when they discovered the body of Imogen/Fidele, seemingly dead. They turned the song “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages” (IV.ii.258-9) into a hymn, which they sang to the tune of “Long Time Traveller” (a traditional song most recently arranged and recorded by the group The Wailin’ Jennys). Shakespeare’s refrain emphasizing that all of the troubles of the world pass with death and that all “must . . . come to dust” (261-2 and following) flowed smoothly into the chorus of the hymn: “I’m a long time travelling here below / To lay this body down.” This was, for me, the most powerful, poignant use of music in the production.
- All of the versatility exhibited by the performers was incorporated into the play’s set and props, most especially the “Fabulous Trunk” constructed by Jacques Roy. The trunk lived up to its moniker, with multiple doors and special features that enabled it to serve a dizzying array of functions. The trunk was the bed on which Imogen slept, the cupboard in which Iachimo hid, and the cave in which Belaria, Guiderius, and Arviragus sheltered. The low “roof” that encouraged the exiled princes to bow their heads also enabled the performance of Cloten’s beheading and the appearance of first his severed head and then his headless body. The same article that made Iachimo’s destructive voyeurism possible protected the lost brothers and becomes the scene of their reunion with their unknown sister. This multiplicity enabled viewers to potentially draw connections between scenes that occur far apart in the play and in very different locations, but which all affect the royal family and build toward the play’s revelatory conclusion. Cymbeline’s biggest prop, Jupiter’s eagle, was eliminated, along with Jupiter himself and the entirety of Posthumus’s dream. However, this revision was in keeping with the minimalist aesthetic of the production.
- As should be apparent, I enjoyed this performance of Cymbeline immensely; indeed, the skill of the performers and the creative team made my only major criticism possible. You need to be awfully good to get an audience so involved, but the Fiasco Theater members facilitated that involvement in part by stripping away some of the play’s darkness and misogyny and thus the difficulties that these qualities entail. Sometimes the actors actually seemed to encourage the audience to find funny moments that were in fact quite disturbing. For example, when Ben Steinfeld as Iachimo climbed from the trunk to leer at Imogen his gestures regularly invited his fellow voyeurs in the audience to giggle at his reactions to the sight of the vulnerable women. This laughter did not seem uncomfortable, like uncertain reactions to troubling events, but rather like genuine mirth. There was little sense of the creepy, even violating nature of his actions as he peered under the sheet covering Imogen, nor any sense that we, too, were implicated in her victimization. I believe that some of the choices that encouraged audience members to make light of otherwise serious situations may have conditioned them to react to harsh language with laughter. As a result, when scenes were performed in ways that might otherwise highlight the play’s darker undercurrents, the audience seemed happy to overlook it. This was the case when Posthumus was easily and progressively more intensely convinced of Imogen’s faithlessness. Although Noah Brody delivered the momentous speech declaring all men bastards because they are born of women with such sustained vitriol that his threats of violence felt entirely credible, many in the audience giggled as though perceiving his pronouncements as goofy indictments of his own gullibility. They seemed not to notice his extreme declarations: “Could I find out / The woman’s part in me! For there’s no motion/ That tends to vice in man but I affirm / It is the woman’s part” (II.v.19-22). In contrast to the real sorrow the production conveyed in the face of Imogen/Fidele’s apparent death, when Jessie Austrian as Imogen discovered what she presumed to be Posthumus’s headless body her grief could not help but elicit laughter. It seemed as though some of the choices made early on jointly encouraged and enabled viewers to avoid acknowledging even the most overtly chilling moments in Cymbeline. Thus, by the time we reached the final scene, a clearly staged and disturbing moment of violence could be easily laughed off: when Imogen jumped to reveal herself to Posthumus and assure him that she is alive, she knelt to kiss him while still in costume as Fidele; in response he brutally struck her and she fell to the ground. The many revelations and fast pace of the final scene could have screeched to a meaningful halt. Certainly, Brody and Austrian portrayed the moment as a confirmation that Posthumus’s earlier cruel language and his attempt to have his wife murdered were not simply the result of his innocent credulity and victimization. However, I was surprised at how many people seemed willing to overlook this moment and to focus on Posthumus’s subsequent embrace of his revealed wife.
- My concern about sacrificing Cymbeline’s misogyny to amplify its humor and happy ending aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Fiasco Theater’s production. There was a focus on storytelling and speaking the lines, on doing the business of playing and making it visible. The ingenuity and energy of the play was infectious. The actors and the entire creative team did a wonderful job, and I hope that Theatre for a New Audience continues to bring companies like Fiasco Theater to the attention of a wider audience.
- Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline. Peter Holland, ed. The Complete Works, Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller, gen. eds. New Pelican Text. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 2002.
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© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).