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Making a Magical “Cymbeline”

How Fiasco Theater created its celebrated Shakespeare production

Fiasco Theater’s production of Cymbeline is more than just bluegrass numbers and clever beheadings.

Granted, those touches make a strong impression, and they’ve helped the company’s spin on Shakespeare become a success. After a short run in 2009, their production was remounted with Theatre For a New Audience earlier this year, and now, it’s running through December at the Barrow Street Theatre. With each appearance, Fiasco gains new fans and a boatload of stellar reviews, and almost everyone praises them for their playful wit.

They’ve earned the compliments: Cymbeline is a complicated play, full of double identities, magic potions, and last-minute plot twists, but Fiasco turns chaos into lively fun. They tell a clear story with minimal sets and just six actors playing every role. Their low-tech approach creates delightfully ingenious moments, like when a white sheet becomes the sea or when a character uses a slingshot to send a message across the country.

But the spectacle wouldn’t work if it weren’t supported by serious ideas. Take a closer look at the company, and you’ll find a slightly subversive theory about how art should be made.

The members of Fiasco—who did graduate work at Brown Univeristy/Trinity Rep in Rhode Island—always put the actor first. That might seem obvious, but in many productions, an actor’s ideas are given less weight than a director’s or a playwright’s. But Cymbeline’s co-directors—Ben Steinfeld and Noah Brody—are also members of the cast, and since Shakespeare isn’t around to give them notes, the performers guide the conversation.

“We’re not going to do something that doesn’t make human sense,” Steinfeld explains. “Even in our rehearsals, the things that we continue to return to are the scenes where you go, ‘I just don’t feel like a person in this scene yet. What can we do?’”

He continues, “Noah and I directed the play, but really, that just meant we ducked out and tried to help, and everyone built it together. Our identity, artistically, is as actors.”
The focus on acting—as opposed to, say, political messages or design ideas—has shaped almost every element of the production, including the decision to have a six-person cast. The company says that’s not just a gimmick or a way to save money: When actors play multiple roles, they echo Cymbeline’s story.

In case you’ve forgotten, the play is essentially about King Cymbeline’s three children. Imogen, his daughter, must disguise herself as a man and even fake her own death in order to be with the man she loves. Meanwhile, his sons must learn their true identities—they were kidnapped as children—and honor the royalty in their nature.

As Brody explains, “All the people in this play are deceived about what the truth really is and where they are in their own story. People don’t know who’s before them. They misinterpret those people’s objectives, so that kind of duality of natures lends itself to being manifested in the casting. It’s manifested in our actual bodies.”

The quest to feel “human” also informed the show’s playful spirit. The cast is on stage for the entire production, and when they’re not performing, they’re watching the play and laughing along with the audience. Before the show and during intermission, they get prepared in front of us, tuning instruments and setting props, and if they see someone they know, they wave.
“That happened by accident at first,” says Jessie Austrian, who plays Imogen and is Fiasco’s co-artistic director with Steinfeld and Brody. “Until the Times review came out [for the first production], it was all our friends who came to see it anyway, so we just said hello. But there was also no backstage. We were getting dressed behind the bleachers. We were greeting people. When we transferred, we were talking about how to take that and move it to a bigger space. Us being us really informs the play.”

The company has also created a rule about “stage tricks:” They never use them while they’re speaking. Brody says, “Shakespeare’s language doesn’t need our help with magic. It doesn’t need our help. And it’s actually more fulfilling for us as performers to embody those linguistic events through language.”

Instead, the “tricks” occurs between scenes. “That lets us do more as actors. We want to be able to do it all,” Steinfeld says, and Brody adds, “It becomes an opportunity for us to have fun with telling the story.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

Photo by Gerry Goodstein

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