Less Is More

With all the theatrical marvels that modern technology can create, it is easy to forget that at its core, effective theater requires very little: an actor, an audience, and a good story to tell. Fiasco Theater's current production of Cymbeline is an excellent exemplar of how to create great theater with the most minimal of means. Using just six actors, a specially-designed trunk, and a trimmed version of William Shakespeare's words, the company creates an intelligently performed and thoroughly diverting production. Cymbeline, a rarely produced late work, is a romance filled with disguises, lost children, mistaken identities, and a love story which seems fated to be tragic, but has a happy ending. The elderly British monarch of the title, manipulated by his evil second wife, strikes out when his daughter and heir, Imogen, marries a honorable but low-born Roman named Posthumus Leonatus. Upon his exile to Rome, Posthumus makes a wager on his wife's virtue and is misled by his unscrupulous opponent into thinking Imogen compromised; enraged, he orders her death. Eventually, the action of the play moves to Wales where a battle between the Britons and the Romans results in reconciliation between the lovers and a reunion between Cymbeline and his two long-lost sons.

Fiasco's adaptation cuts the text down to a fast-paced two hours and fifteen characters and adds a whimsical a capella preshow announcement and several folksy, entertaining musical numbers. The trims work well, although it was difficult to track who was portraying whom during the first moments of the final scene, when nearly all the characters show up to contribute to the play's resolution. That stated, considering that a mere five performers portray fourteen of the characters, it's impressive how clearly and quickly they could establish their current identities.

Part of the credit for that clarity goes to the elegant direction by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who also performed in the piece. Scenes were staged simply, yet with good composition and a surprising use of a few, well-chosen scenic elements. This Cymbeline is staged in a plain, white-walled room with nothing more than a couple of wooden cubes and a large, versatile trunk which was designed and built by Jacques Roy. Yet, the trunk becomes a kind of magic box of tricks, transforming seamlessly into a ship, a throne, a cave, a pool table, and a bed, among other things.

Whitney Locher's tasteful, two-toned costumes in brown and cream give the company the unified look of a chorus while simultaneously proving flexible enough to indicate different characters through minor adjustments. Imogen and the Queen's costumes are particularly successful; the former, a flattering-floor-length number with a split over-skirt, transforms into Imogen's boy disguise, while the latter, a saucy short dress on the wicked Queen, becomes a large-pocketed country frock merely with the removal of a belt. Sound, sometimes in the form of foley-style effects, is performed by offstage actors on a plethora of musical instruments, including a horn, guitar, banjo, recorder, a wind-chime and a set of pool balls.

In fact, there are very few flaws to be found in this Cymbeline. Perhaps at the beginning, the actors speak a little faster than was comfortable for the audience, and actress Emily Young's voice is drowned out by the musical accompaniment when she sings solo in the second act, but these minutia do not detract from the quality of the whole production.

The true reason for this production's excellence, however, is the work of the cast. It is clear that all six cast members – graduates of the Brown/Trinity Rep. Consortium – have benefited from their training. They clearly understand how to perform Shakespeare, making the complicated text into living thought for their characters. Jessie Austrian is radiant as the spirited, star-crossed Imogen, while Steinfeld is creepily charismatic as Iachimo, milking his scene in Imogen's bedroom for every laugh. Brody as Posthumus tears through an excruciatingly misogynistic monologue, but his obvious pain from Imogen's apparent betrayal makes this uncomfortable scene riveting. Although Andy Grotelueschen rushes through his first scenes as Cymbeline and Cloten, he hits his stride as a cringing chemist who foils the Queen's machinations by passing off a sleeping potion as poison. The cast is rounded out by Paul L. Coffey as principled servant Pisanio and Young, whose languid Queen is a suitably wicked stepmother.

When a production has what Fiasco Theater's Cymbeline does – uniformly strong performers, an elegant concept, solid direction, and a diverting text – there is no need for technology. The work stands proudly on its own.

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