Fiasco Theater, with the support of Theatre for a New Audience, makes quite an unpretentious stir with their focused, passionate, and light-hearted production of Cymbeline. We know from the start that this show is tailored to this ensemble. Pre-set instruments would indicate that the cast can accompany themselves, and much to our pleasure, they are indeed musically talented. A brick background with exposed pipes and columns create an urban but stately versatile space, and mobile, utilitarian set pieces--including an incredibly clever trunk designed by Jacques Roy--transform to fit the actors' needs. Whitney Locher dresses them in changeable neutrals with visual accents, making the character shifts smooth and clear. Tim Cryan's lighting design is seeming invisible, perfectly highlighting and making little details pop. And after singing the house speech to turn off cell phones and open candies, a quirky and informative prologue begins, concisely telling the back story of the first scene. Yes, this is a unique and fresh production--a Fiasco production.
And the actors have the chops to match. Andy Grotelueschen, who triples as Cloten, Cymbeline, and the Doctor, is a talented player who can blink among characters in an instant. His Cloten is truly bone-headed, as he emphasizes brutish stupidity over maliciousness or cruelty. We almost feel empathetic for his clumsy attempts to woo, until he reveals his plan to kill Posthumus and rape Imogene in his clothes. Then we see him for his true self: a cocky, dangerous fool. Grotelueschen's Cymbeline is pitifully unaware, and he injects a fair amount of his own humor into the Doctor, a minor, plot-moving character that often feels tacked on.
Pisanio, played by Paul L. Coffey, is as steadfast and loyal to the truth as ever--there is genuine shock and disgust when he reads the letter from Posthumus describing Imogene’s transgressions. Torn between duty and morality, Coffey is always in the moment, imbuing immediacy in all of Pisanio’s choices. Coffey and Ben Steinfeld play the lost princes, and while they seem fully capable of living as mountaineers, there is also sensitivity and a purity of intent that can easily get lost among the hunting and the beheading. Coffey as Guiderius, who actually does the bloody deed, is especially unique in his cool reasoning of why he had to kill the Queen’s son, whose vileness cannot be hidden by his noble birth.
Fresh from her work in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Emily Young plays a superbly slick and false Queen, slimy enough to leave her mark on all she touches. Her grey sleeveless dress with thigh-high side slits flaunts the Queen’s ambition, Young too overtly sexualized not to be up to something. The Queen thinks she’s sly but everyone, including the audience, sees through her veneer. Young’s female version of Belarius, raising the two kidnapped princes in hill country, has a sweetness of character that often goes unnoticed when played as a man, and although Young has a penchant for touching faces as a sign of affection in both characters, we can see treachery in one and sincerity in the other.
Steinfeld, also just finished from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, primarily plays Iachimo with surprisingly understated bravado. Steinfeld’s sleazy Italian who challenges Imogene’s fidelity and chastity genuinely believes that he is right, and his only care is the wager. When he miscalculates Imogene, he simply redirects and alters his plan, with cold charms rather than lusty anger. And when Steinfeld sneaks into Imogene’s room, he is casual, almost scientifically detached, in collecting his incriminating evidence (though there is some boyish glee). Most actors choose to play the character lecherously, but Steinfeld acts with a more calculating, diabolical plan, a schemer who enjoys sullying Imogene’s reputation without even touching her.
Jessie Austrian’s Imogene is a kind, loving heroine, who unfortunately lets a snake into her life with welcoming arms. There is also a touch of Hermione from The Winter’s Tale in this Imogene: she is innocent of body language and the potential flirtations she may be sending, as her senses are clouded by love for Posthumus. Wearing a fitted white sleeveless dress, Austrian is feminine and innocent and manages to convey more authority than the Queen’s fashionable opportunistic grab for power. Austrian’s Imogene is also a little sassy, not afraid to speak her mind and admonish Cloten for his oafishness. And one of the stand-out moments of the show: when Pisanio disguises her as a boy, Austrian shows such gratitude that Imogene stops being a princess and starts becoming a person.
Posthumus, played by Noah Brody, is deeply in love with Imogene but clearly out of his league in court, as an exile from Britain’s and a poor innocent in Italy’s. Even though Posthumus has been raised as a noble, he cannot play like one; he is not cunning or devious enough to doubt anyone’s intentions, and he trusts everyone at their word--even the Italians. He doesn’t understand the ruthless nature of courtiers, who think nothing of winning a bet at all costs. Brody plays Posthumus without guile to the point of our despair, as we see Imogene’s supposed betrayal salt his wounds, harden his heart, and breed distress, then regret. He bet on Imogene but did not have faith, and even when they reunite, he is a changed man for it.
The cast comes together as a cohesive unit, simultaneously a vibrant small company and larger than life to fill the New Victory stage. The audience peeks behind the nonexistent curtain as the actors prepare during the intermission, most notably Young in blue bunny slippers to keep her bare feet warm. The fight scenes, heavy on synchronized percussion and formation, certainly evoke a warlike people effectively, considering the size of the cast. Double casting provides great moments: the Queen and the Frenchman in the court of Italy aid Iachimo in his plan to win the wager; the two princely brothers conversely become Pisanio and Iachimo; Cymbeline pops into being the Doctor and pops out again. And the ensemble has unearthed fun in the finale, where all subplots converge in hilariously convenient ways. Every piece of the production fits so snugly together that we can hardly imagine it any other way.