Fiasco Theater’s Cymbeline, now playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, needs to be seen because it’s one production of a Shakespeare play you won’t think could be better performed by a British cast.  Whether we’ve bought into an erroneous view of the bard or not, Shakespeare can seem intimidating to American audiences and actors; we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that only titled English thespians know how to play and pronounce him.  The truth is, as no less an interpreter than Vanessa Redgrave explains (she actually refused the Queen’s offer to be called “Dame” herself), that Shakespeare’s poetry, as spoken originally (albeit all mixed up with continental pronunciations and languages) probably sounded less like English English and more like American English anyway. Professor Paul Meier, in collaboration with linguist David Crystal, at the University of Kansas, tells us that the sound of Shakespeare’s English would remind us most of modern Irish.  You and I, today, are the ones who think legitimate William Shakespeare needs to sound like Olivier or Gielgud, making us complicit in our own dramatic inferiority complexes.  We can even believe that the state of American theater may have to do with the fact that we never had a Shakespeare of our own. The reality is that we do have such a Shakespeare and his name is, unsurprisingly, William Shakespeare.   He was performed in the U.S., before the Revolution, at least as early as 1730.   It may be easier to blame some of the lousy productions we’ve seen on a lack of cultural inheritance.  In terms of genealogy, though, even if it sounds blasphemous, Shakespeare belongs to us, too.

Not that there doesn’t seem to be preferred styles for American and English actors.  The lines blur, but the former may be more accustomed to a physical approach; the latter to one more elocutionary (I do think there’s something good going on with American theater acting today—it seems less fixated on finding and coming from the safest, most agreed upon cultural stereotypes; the characters seem more originally discovered–and I think you’ll see some of that in Cymbeline).  I have no idea what Fiasco would or could do with Hamlet because they seem so understanding of and well-suited to the comedy.  Their ability to unpack the spoken into body language energizes this convoluted space-out of a play, especially if you think it’s going to be about a character named King Cymbeline.  That’s right; Cymbeline is not really about Cymbeline, who makes approximately four brief appearances during the proceedings. He’s a catalyst instead, without the dimension of Leontes from another Romance The Winter’s Tale. It would have been more helpful to have called the play Imogen and Posthumus, but I trust Shakespeare knew what he was doing with regard to box office. Still, the matter at hand is the couple’s reuniting, despite an evil stepmother and her violent, immature son. 

Taking a rough-hewn approach, Fiasco swathes the production in simple earth tones (the costumes are by Whitney Locher), keeping the proceedings plain, simple, and clean (the company actually started in New England and was formed by graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A. acting program).  Sometimes you’ll think you’re in children’s theatre or a television sketch, but the departure is best described in the program’s “Note from the Directors”: “Focus[ing] on action has given our ensemble the opportunity to explore physicality, music, combat, character, and storytelling with abandon and joy. . . .” Depth is sacrificed, but, truth be told, there probably isn’t all that much to begin with—there’s just not that much there, there.  Shakespeare probably didn’t write Cymbeline on his own, and he may not have expected it to be produced—the play’s focus is not on character but rather on a technical ability with plot.  Peter Hall, as quoted by critic Michael Billington, reminds us, as noted in the program, that “The last scene in Cymbeline has seventeen anagnorises: discoveries not known before.  Shakespeare obviously delighted in this but it’s a beast to stage.”

Too picaresque to allow for much internal poetics—you may even wonder where all the speeches in Cymbeline went.  The play reinforces the point that Shakespeare does not have to be inflexible on diction and quivering, sonorous oratory—anyone will delight as the Fiasco actors work physically, turning wooden boxes into beds or hills or huts or pool tables, or even bathrooms (actually, the best production I’ve ever seen of a Shakespeare play was Bergman’s The Winter’s Tale, performed in Swedish with a translation in modern, perfunctory English).  

What also sets Fiasco’s Cymbeline apart is its confidence—its Americanness doesn’t sound off-key or feel second best.  In fact, the company finds native approximations, which seem reasoned and just—instead of a Milford-Haven set on the coast of Wales, according to the script, the performers substitute Appalachian song and flavor, giving us a sense of the Scotch-Irish (and Welsh?) sequestered in America.  Moreover, the company’s originality and intelligence, it’s ability to find so much physical behavior in the text may make you prefer this work to the imports.  The actors are also musicians—they play, among many instruments, the guitar, banjo, pipe, cello, and horn—even a washboard and wind chimes–and they can sing, too.  The fifteen characters, as written by Shakespeare are, through doubling and tripling and quadrupling, played by six actors.  Jessie Austrian’s Imogen is sensible, down to earth; Noah Brody’s Posthumus is not without youthful zeal, but he’s sincere, too; Paul L. Coffey, in several parts, including the loyal servant Pisanio is trustworthy, underplayed, fleshed out;  because he’s doing so much on stage, he may be the production’s “rock.”  Actually, Ben Steinfeld’s Iachimo isn’t a bad guy sent from Central Casting—he’s more precise with his interpretation.  Like Steinfeld, Emily Young’s wicked stepmother is not overwrought.  She also plays the sympathetic Belaria, banished from court, as if it’s a personal response to the character.  Andy Grotelueschen is something of a crowd pleaser as the groom-to-be (in his dreams!) Cloten. The group has taken the need to overact out of the implicit fairy tale motifs in the work—just as in a new land one would confront the real but unimaginable.

During preproduction, Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, and Ben Steinfeld, kept “returning to this central idea:  none of us ever knows where we are in our own life ‘story’; the challenge of today may lead to the glory of tomorrow.  Shakespeare seems to be asking us to recognize how life pushes us around in unexpected ways; one path disappears just as another reveals itself.” Their reading of such an optimistic message in this huge, unreeling of a plot, which might have been an exercise in hotdogging it, could easily have become about the one that got away.  Instead, they’ve found a grounded, spare American success story.

© 2011 by Bob Shuman

CYMBELINE by William Shakespeare

Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street, NY, NY 10014)

For tickets, visit:

Performance Schedule

Saturday, August 27th @ 7:30PM
Sunday, August 28th @ 7:30PM

Tuesday – Friday @ 7:30PM
Saturday & Sunday @ 2:30PM & 7:30PM

Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld

Featuring: Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Andy Grotelueschen, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young

Set Design: Jean-Guy Lecat
Costume Design: Whitney Locher
Light Design: Tim Cryan
Fabulous Trunk: Jacques Roy
Prop Design: Caite Hevner
Fight Director: Noah Brody
Music Director: Ben Steinfeld
Vocal Coach: Cicely Berry
Fight Consultant: J. Allen Suddeth
Casting Director: Deborah Brown Casting
Production Stage Manager: Christina Lowe
Assistant Stage Manager: Shane Schnetzler
Understudies: Ellen Adair & Patrick Mulryan
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Production Manager: Joshua Scherr
Assistant Set Designer: Pierre LeBon
Assistant Light Designer: Lucrecia Briceno
Technical Director: Kurtis Rivers
Master Electrician: John Anselmo
Assistant Director: Michael Perlman
Press Representative: The Bruce Cohen Group, LTD.
General Management: Michael Page & Amy Dalba
General Manager, Theatre for a New Audience: Theresa Von Klug
Artwork: Frank “Fraver” Verlizzo
Graphic Design: Patrick Flood
Advertising: Ann Murphy
Marketing: Hudson Media Services, LLC
Marketing Intern: Danya Taymor

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