William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline has the reputation of being one of the Bard’s “problem” plays, but you’d never guess that from Fiasco Theater’s astonishingly accessible, amazingly inventive six-actor production, now arriving intact at Santa Monica’s The Broad Stage from an off-Broadway run that won over even the toughest New York critics.
Even more astonishing to Angelinos is that this spectacular import arrives less than four weeks after A Noise Within’s locally produced Cymbeline dazzled Pasadena audiences, a feat which Fiasco’s Cymbeline seems likely to repeat on the West Side, albeit with an entirely different take on this rarely staged Shakespeare gem.
What both productions have in common are their reduced-sized casts (eight actors at A Noise Within and six at the Broad) and their multi-twisted plot, one featuring a plucky young heroine who dons male apparel as disguise, a villain who schemes to make our hero suspect his young wife of adultery, a potion that simulates death without that pesky fatal result, a royal father who rejects his beloved daughter, children separated at birth and reunited at long last in adulthood, an ambitious queen without a moral scruple to her name, and a bit of Ancient Roman history thrown in for good measure—making Cymbeline a mash-up of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: As You Like it, Othello, Romeo And Juliet, King Lear, A Comedy Of Errors, Hamlet, and Antony And Cleopatra.
Interestingly, Cymbeline’s title character plays only a supporting role in the proceedings. It is in fact King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen around whom our story revolves, a tale which begins with her wedding to the nobly-raised orphan Posthumous, a marriage which does not sit at all well with Cymbeline’s evil second wife, who wishes for her own selfish reasons to see her son Cloten wed to the royal heiress. Succumbing to the seductive Queen’s persuasive ways, Cymbeline exiles the insufficiently royal Posthumous to Rome, where the young man’s supposed friend Iachimo, in Iago-like fashion, decides to convince Posthumous that his wife has betrayed him with another man.
This having been successfully accomplished (or at least apparently so), a vengeful Posthumous sends his servant Pisanio to kill Imogen, but Pisanio goes against his master’s will and convinces Imogen to disguise herself in male apparel as “Fidele,” the better to prove her innocence. In short order, Fidele has been befriended by a pair of rustic brothers, who we soon learn are her very own siblings, kidnapped in their youth by an exiled former friend of the King as payback for Cymbeline’s false accusation of treason.
Meanwhile, the wicked Queen plots to poison both Cymbeline and Imogen with a sleeping potion which Dr. Cornelius has, unbeknownst to her, substituted for the considerably more venomous mixture she had in mind.
Add to this Cymbeline’s refusal to pay this year’s tribute to Roman ambassador Caius Lucius, a “No way, Jose” which results in a declaration of war between Rome and Britain, and you’ve got one of Shakespeare’s most complicated, if not downright schizophrenic, plots.
All of which makes Fiasco Theater’s ever so easy-to-follow production all the more miraculous.
First and foremost, its cast (who met not all that long ago as students in Brown University/Trinity Rep’s MFA program) approach Shakespearean English as if it were written today, without the “reverence” that can send the Bard’s words whooshing over audience members’ heads. Pacing and pauses help considerably, as do the cast’s thoroughly contemporary American accents. Not only that, but it is clear from the production’s expository opening speech that each cast member is making a conscious effort to ensure that we on the other side of the fourth wall are getting exactly what they’re saying.
Miracle number two is that although a mere six actors (Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Ben Steinfeld, and Emily Young) play a grand total of fifteen roles, there’s never a moment’s doubt who’s portraying whom, a combination of distinctly different voices and postures … and a minor costume adjustment here or there. Take for instance Coffrey’s Pisano, who wears a vest, his Guiderius, who does not, and his Caius Lucius, who drapes the production’s ubiquitous white bed sheet over his shoulders and arms to show us he is a Roman general.
Miracle number three is how simply gorgeous this Cymbeline is to look at and listen to despite a particularly spare scenic design—just a pair of wooden crates, a great big trunk, some candles, the abovementioned sheet, and an upstage chair for each actor to sit on while not actively participating in the downstage action. Oh, and next to each chair, a musical instrument which the multitalented cast use to underscore scenes or to accompany themselves whenever they join singing voices in gorgeous six-part harmony. Credit Jacques Roy for his “trunk design and fabrication,” Caite Hevner for her properties design, Whitney Locher for her rustic-looking costumes, the cast for some very clever sound design choices, and above all lighting designer Tim Cryan for bathing the stage in a radiant golden glow, all of which makes this Cymbeline a treat for the eyes and the ears.
As for the abovementioned trunk, I wonder if a single bit of scenic design has ever served so many purposes, from bed to cave to throne to billiard table to allowing us to see a character’s decapitated head and his headless body—though to be precise, not at the same time. Add to that a single white sheet that serves as ocean and toga and bedspread and shroud (and even more) and you’ve got some visual alchemy to provoke audience oohs and aahs.
All of this Shakespearean magic has been brilliantly co-directed by Brody and Steinfeld (though one guesses that all six former classmates and longtime friends and collaborators have had a hand in creating the onstage wonders). Steinfeld’s music direction and the cast’s John Doyle-esque ability to act, sing, and accompany themselves on guitar, banjo, ukulele, etc. deserve added kudos.
Roles have been divvied up thusly. Austrian is Imogen (and her male-drag creation Fidele) and her real-life husband Brody plays stage hubby Posthumous (in addition to his cameo as a Roman Captain). The remaining four actors play from two to four roles each, each one easily distinguishable from the other. In addition to his three previously mentioned roles, Coffey gets a fourth, Posthumous’s Roman host Philario. Burly bearded Grotelueschen is a regal King Cymbeline, a boorish Cloten, and an eccentric Dr. Cornelius, the latter two easily recognized by Cloten’s knit cap and Cornelius’s googly-eyed goggles. Steinfeld gets to be both the villainous Iachimo and the good-as-gold Arviragus. As for Young, the actress not only plays a seductive Evil Queen but a gender-bending Frenchman and feisty old Belaria (whom the Fiasco folks have given a sex change from Shakespeare’s original Belarius).
All six actors are in a word magnificent.
As for Cymbeline’s fight sequences, thrilling both in Pasadena and Santa Monica, Fiasco Theater’s swordplay (directed by Brody) features the added delight of seeing even fewer actors play an entire battalion’s worth, even going so far as to change characters mid-fight, so that a single actor may find him or herself fighting on one side one second and on the other the next.
So there you have it. Two extraordinary Cymbelines on opposite sides of metropolitan L.A. within only weeks of each other.
Whereas Bart DeLorenzo’s Cymbeline at A Noise Within “avoid[ed] potential pitfalls (i.e., tragic elements that might in lesser hands prove heavy-handed) by playing them for over-the-top laughs,” co-directors Brody and Steinfeld play this Cymbeline considerably straighter, giving it real emotional impact despite ample laughter along the way.
Both approaches worked wonderfully for this reviewer.
And next to lastly, a bit of theatrical trivia to make you believe in miracles this holiday season. Fiasco Theater first staged Cymbeline at New York City’s 60ish-seat blackbox Access Theater in a 2009 production that could easily have gone the way of most under-the-radar theater by running its course and then taking its place in Fiasco Theater archives. Instead, the production so dazzled Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of the considerably higher profile Theater For A New Audience, that he offered Cymbeline a spot on his next season. That production then caught the eye of Broad Stage director Dale Franzen … and the rest, as they say, is theater history.
A final miracle.
The Broad Stage production of Fiasco Theater’s Cymbeline comes just a month after the Broad brought the world-famous Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre’s Hamlet direct from London to Santa Monica, or to put it in Biblical terms this Christmas season, David (in the guise of Fiasco Theater’s Cymbeline) has proven himself every bit the equal of the more Goliathan Globe.
However you look at it, December theatergoers on the West Side and beyond have ample reason to include a visit to the Broad Stage as part of their holiday festivities.
Christina Lowe is production stage manager. Cicely Berry is vocal and text consultant. Michael Perlman is assistant director.
The Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica.
December 13, 2012
Photos: Ari Mintz