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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Elegant Simplicity: Fiasco Theater's Cymbeline

Friends, if you missed Fiasco Theater/Theater for a New Audience's production of Cymbeline, which closed at the New Victory Theater last night, you missed something spectacular. Funny, fun, accessible, and engaging, it was nearly pitch-perfect from beginning to end. A joyful example of what theater ought to be.

I knew was in for an oustanding evening from moment Ben Steinfeld took the stage to deliver the play's opening words, a quick prologue bringing us up to speed with the events at rise, and I found myself laughing with the audience - not at what was happening, but in delighted anticipation of what was to come. It is a shrewd director and a capable actor who can wrangle such subtle humor out of the bard's dense text. Steinfeld, it seems is both. He and fellow ensemble member Noah Brody have directed this charming production.

The set was clean and sparse, featuring only two wooden acting blocks and a large trunk, which the actors arranged and rearranged as the scene shifted. It was elegant in its simplicity, a description that could define the spirit of the entire show.

The production is so precise, so expert, so brilliantly executed that it's clear that an incredible amount of effort, love, thought, and skill went into the crafting of the production. Yet its most impressive credit is that that effort was almost entirely invisible. Take, again, the set as an exampe: while the versatility and creativity of the set's three lone pieces is mind-boggling, the loving labors of its creation are reflected only in the program (the particularly inventive trunk by itself has its own designer). On stage, both the set and the graceful transitions between scenes seem as easy and natural as air. It feels almost as though the six actors happened to meet in the park and say to each other, "You know what would be fun? If we put on a play. Here are some boxes - will these do?" The end result was beatifully bare and uncomplicated.

The Fiasco Theater ensemble extended this gorgeous bit of magic beyond the play's stunning production values and on to their own outsanding performances. Each and every one of the cast was charismatic, dynamic, and relatable, engaging with the audience with such aplomb that it seemed as if they were doing absolutely nothing. In the bathroom line during intermission, I heard a snipet of two college-age girls' conversation: one was saying to the other, "You know, when I read the play in school, I thought it was kind of strange. I didn't think the humor would translate to the stage very well, but it really does." No, I thought, it's not the humor that translates, or at least not so easily, it's the actors who are working so hard to make it happen. So hard, it seems, that these two girls did not even realize that they were doing it.

This is as fine a balancing act as any I have seen. The nature of Shakespeare's text creates a curious paradox: on one hand, one of the easiest perils that can befall a performance of Shakespeare is to over-do it. The language is so intricate and poetic, the temptation is to meet it with comparable grandiosity. It is a keen and capable artist who understands that the key to Shakespeare is simplicity: no need to exalt the language, the language will exalt itself. Focus on the narrative, the truth that the story and its characters have to offer, the rest will shine through on its own.

A feat, though, harder to accomplish than it would seem. On the other side of the Shakespearean spectrum, the density of the language certainly makes the story less accessible to modern audiences - much of the subtler nuances are lost and to compensate, it is necessary to draw every character and every situation with particular clarity and precision. But here the pendulum is in danger of swinging back too far in the wrong direction, leading to plays that are, again, over-drawn, relying on caricature and physical shenanigans to communicate the story.

Somehow, though, Cymbeline deftly evaded both this pitfalls, expertly balancing the simultaneous need for simplicity and panache better than any production I have ever seen.

It should also not go without noting that almost every actor played multiple roles and each was so rich and so distinctly defined that never once was I confused as to who was playing whom - and all this without ever lapsing into broadly drawn caricature. The clarity did not even dissolve at the end, when, in a 39 Steps-esque culminating scene, all the characters convened on stage at once, requiring the actors to jump back and forth between their roles with head-spinning speed. The ensemble stepped up to the task with joyful and somewhat cheeky finesse.

Fiasco Theater, with its Cymbeline, has one of the cleverest, funniest, most stylish and engaging productions I have ever seen. This is Shakespeare done right. And they made it look so easy.


  1. People get another chance to see Fiasco's brilliant Cymbeline! It is now in previews at Barrow Street Theater.


  2. I read about that and was SO SO SO excited. I might actually see it again.