“Cymbeline” is a very strange play. It’s Shakespeare’s most bizarre kaleidoscope of styles and periods. Not that he didn’t mix it up on occasion, but this one’s a doozy. It’s part romance, part mythology, part bad history, part theatre of the absurd. It’s set in Roman-occupied Britain and Rome occupied by cosmopolitan courtiers of another millennium. Rather than attempt to make rational sense of the piece, the Fiasco Theatre has sensibly embraced its irrationality and created an imaginative one-set wonder performed in under 2.5 hours.
Productions of “Cymbeline” over the years have generally disappointed — sometimes awful with one shining moment (think Joan Cusack’s Imogen slugging Posthumous in the final act), or pleasant and fun until a disastrous choice decimates it, then decimates it again and again until nothing’s left. In that part of the play where each absurd revelation comes hard upon the last, this production just keeps getting more frenetic. Funnier and faster. Faster and funnier. The more ridiculous the plot point, jab, and stab, the more ridiculous the performers recognize it to be and just have a jolly old time. And so do we.
The company of players here numbers six. The characters in this play (as they’ve edited it) number 15. There are no puppets, no supernumeraries. These fantabulous six actors make short work of the overlapping plotlines, multiple roles, nationalities, and voices, not to mention multiple musical instruments.
These actors are highly skilled, the verse work is very fine, and vocally the players are multi-faceted, sometimes mellow, sometimes ringing, always distinct to the characters. Their talent and innate gifts were apparently augmented by the coaching of Cicely Berry, the renowned voice and text coach. Clarity of voice, clarity of vision, clarity of silly storylines. The Fiasco Theatre makes it all work.
The Company: Jessie Austrian played Imogen with sweetness, anger, innocence, and strength.
Noah Brody played Posthumus staunchly, a Roman Captain, choreographed the fights (consulting with J. Allen Suddeth), and co-directed with Ben Steinfeld.
Paul L. Coffey was Pisanio, Philario, Caius Lucius, and Guiderius, turning on a dime from a put-upon servant to a Roman statesman.
Andy Grotelueschen played Cymbeline callously, Cloten cloddishly, and Cornelius cleverly.
Ben Steinfeld co-directed, played Iachimo wickedly and Ariragus innocently, and was musical director — the music wooed the audience into joy.
Sweet-voiced Emily Young played the mean Queen wittily, and aged herself into Belaria.
There can be no spoilers in a Shakespeare play, except for the personal touches an inspired company can make. For the uninitiated, Cymbeline is a doddering old fool who has fallen for a nasty woman, so naturally he’s the king. He had three children by his first queen — two boys who disappeared twenty years before the story starts, and his daughter Imogen. The mean queen (Cymbeline’s second) has an oafish son, Cloten, whom she wants to inherit the crown, by marriage to Imogen … or however.
Imogen has fallen in love with and married a penniless young man named Posthumus — although he is of good birth, he carelessly lost his parents. He has a loyal and highly moral servant named Pisanio, whom he orders to stay behind to protect Imogen when the king banishes Posthumous from England. Cymbeline likes to banish people who annoy him.
In Rome, Posthumous hangs out with a slug named Iachimo and not surprisingly becomes a slug himself, after Iachimo betrays his tenuous friendship with Posthumous by telling him that Imogen betrayed their marriage bed. Then Posthumous betrays Imogen by ordering Pisanio to kill what he considers his inconstant wife. Follow so far? Meanwhile … oh, there’s just too much. But it’s important to know that the mean queen without a name gives gullible Pisanio a “healing” potion that isn’t really. He gives it to Imogen, she appears dead, wakes to find a headless dead body and mistakes it for her husband… Again, too much.
Eventually there’s war, atonement, revenge, reunited families, and along the way there’s some charming foot-tapping bluegrass.
Suffice to say, this company of players really knows its stuff. The threesome who came up with the notion of this production — Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, and Ben Steinfeld — have given us a great gift of a damned good “Cymbeline.” Staging is terribly clever, the ubiquitous trunk used exceptionally well throughout the play. Jacques Roy created the Fabulous Trunk that is the centerpiece of the action, along with scenic designer Jean-Guy Lecat.
'Tis a frabjous day when such people come together, take mad risks with an impossible play, and make a theatreful of people happy for an evening. Get thee to the Barrow Street Theatre for this delightful funny tuneful production of “Cymbeline.” You won’t regret it and you won’t forget it.