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A CurtainUp Review

Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered. — Pisanio
Jessie Austrian and Noah Brody
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Thanks to the Fiasco Theater's spunky new production of Cymbeline, Shakespeare's notoriously difficult play has fresh clarity and charm. The company loosely follows the Bard's script, but adds a number of original compositions that gives a new slant and sound to the old tale.

Unlike The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, the seams of Shakespeare's construction in Cymbeline show so you really have to overlook its flaws to feel the theatrical magic. Curiously, its the willingness not to apologize for its melodrama, absurd episodes, and cartoon-like characters that's the strength of this production. The Queen, is after all really the cruel step-mother plucked right from the pages of fairytale. And her son Cloten is a grotesque caricature, a half-wit who believes that his high birth entitles him to all kinds of privilege, including the right to marry Princess Imogen. Imogen wakes up next to the headless body of Cloten, and later on, bizarrely discovers her long-lost brothers in the countryside of Wales. In short, this is deliberate farce and a headlong leap into fantasy.

This Cymbeline production gives short-shrift to the sub-plots, so don't expect all the story's multiple layers or its psychological undercurrents. But if this version doesn't possess all the authentic color and poetry of Shakespeare's myth, it has an unswerving sense of where it is going and how it is getting there.

The cast comprises just six actors, undertaking 15 parts. That's quite a reduction of Shakespeare's original dramatis personae, which has over thirty roles, including cameo appearances of the god Jupiter and three ghosts. This bare Bard staging by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld admirably brings out the play's comic texture by eliminating the ponderous supernatural elements and the stylized masque.

True, you might miss the dazzling special effects that have been part and parcel of other productions, like the visually stunning one a Lincoln Center in 2008. But if Fiasco's less exalted interpretation is as rewarding to watch for its gritty down-to-earth manner and its variegated melodies and madrigals.

The multiple role playing cast is perfection. Andy Grotelueschen is remarkably versatile in his triple roles as Cymbeline, Cloten, and Cornelius. Emily Young gives a new sexy swagger to the Queen, and a gender-bending twist to the conventional Belarius. I had reservations about Jessie Austrian playing the heroine Imogen in the early scenes, but after she assumed the identity of the boy Fidele, it was evident that she possessed the Shakespearean chops and charm for her dual role. Noah Brody, as Posthumus, and Paul L. Coffey as Pisanio are also very fine. And speaking of villains, Ben Steinfeld couldn't be better as the calculating Iachimo, a character who is practically the mirror image of Iago.

The whole production values also hit the mark. Jean Guy Lecat's set is clean and economical, employing a large wooden circle that allows the actors to walk on and off their scenes smoothly. The actors are always in full view of the audience, whether they are in the midst of the action or sitting on chairs upstage. The only props onstage are a giant trunk, and two small chests that serve as handy repositories for stage business. Since there is much doubling and tripling of roles, many character changes are signaled by the slightest costume alterations by costumer Whitney Locher — for instance, Cloten becomes Cornelius merely by putting on a pair of eyeglasses, and Imogen morphs into Fidele by stripping away her full-length skirt to reveal tailored trousers.

Fiasco's Cymbeline does have a fault: It has too brief a run at the New Victory Theater. So don't dally. Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, along with the entire cast, have succeeded with dancing a swell theatrical caper on one of Shakespeare's most complex works.

Note: The Fiasco production is under the auspices of Theater for a New Audience.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
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).
Sets: Jean-Guy Lecat
Costumes: Whitney Locher
Music Director: Ben Steinfeld
Lighting: Tim Cryan
Fight Director: Noah Brody
Vocal & Text Consultants: Cicely Berry & Robert Neff Williams
Production Stage Manager: Anne Michelson
Fiasco Theater/Theater for a New Audience at the New VictoryTheater at 209 West 42nd Street. Tickets: $75. 646/223-3010
From 01/13/11; opening 01/16/11; closing 01/30/11.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 8pm, Wed matinees @ 2pm, Sat matinees @ 2pm, Sunday matinees @3pm.
Running time: 2 hours; 20 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on January 15th press performance
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