Jessie Austrian and Noah Brody
in Cymbeline
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Jessie Austrian and Noah Brody
in Cymbeline
(© Gerry Goodstein)
William Shakespeare's play Cymbeline, written during his late-period redemption-and-reconciliation mind-set, is a hodge-podge. To construct it, he purloins generous bits of Othello andKing Lear and lifts from the comedies in which women cross-dress to preserve honor and anonymity. There are even plot points shared with The Winter's Tale, composed around the same 1610 date. Therefore, it's a bright feather in cap of the six-actor Fiasco Theater troupe -- at the New Victory Theater under Theatre for a New Audience auspices -- that so much fun abounds in this crazy-quilt of an opus.

Paring cast members means that five of the eager and committed thespians are required to play more than one role -- and two of them, Fiasco co-founders Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, direct. For one role, banished noble courtier Belarius even morphs into Belaria (the game Emily Young). Amusingly, the change-character-on-the-spot conceit inserts bountiful laughs, although light-hearted humor wasn't necessarily the Bard's intention when concocting his admonitory tale.

That tale begins as title character Britain's King Cymbeline (Andy Grotelueschen) sends Posthumus Leonatus (Brody) from the land for wooing daughter Imogen (Jessie Austrian), who's pledged to betroth Cloten (Grotelueschen again), the barbaric son of the scheming Queen (Young again). Away among the Italians, Posthumus accepts a wager that his Imogen isn't as faithful as he believes.

Presented with false evidence that Imogen has indeed given herself to another man, Posthumus schemes to have her murdered, which leads to Imogen also abandoning the court for Wales, falling in with Belaria and her two charges, Arviragus (Steinfeld) and Guiderius (Paul L.Coffey), who happen to be the King's sons. To make a long and confused melodrama-with-poison-potion story shorter, a headless body crops up that Posthumus thinks is Imogen. Eventually, most of the good-natured characters are back in Cymbeline's rooms where transpires the redemption-reconciliation the Bard apparently felt obliged to offer when advancing through his middle years.

Liberally paring away from Shakespeare's script and adding to it, the Fiasco cast members play on a wide, slightly raked wooden circle which features only a highly utilitarian wooden steamer trunk and two wooden boxes from which props are constantly extracted. When not performing in a scene, the six players sit on upstage chairs, often providing music or sound effects. When a mimed billiards game is in progress, Austrian, upstage, clicks two billiard balls.

At the outset, the team welcomes the audience with song, and then continues to provide music, with Steinfeld on guitar and Coffey on cello. The Belaria trio deliver their songs in three-part country-western harmony.

Fiasco's most attractive element is the ingenuity with which the sextet approaches so many of Shakespeare's knotty challenges -- not the least of which is severing that confounded head and, the reverse, presenting that headless body. They also bring off the brutal Britain-Roman battle scenes with stylistic flair.

There is, however a least attractive element here, too. For an ensemble so devoted to Shakespeare, there seems to be insufficient interest in the music of his language. Aside from Grotelueschen and perhaps Steinfeld, there's a pronounced flatness, a frequent monotony to the delivery, which it's tempting to call a clash of cymbelines. This is a genuine drawback, when so much else is plucky and perky.

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