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Previews: 01/13/11- Close: 01/30/11 Cymbeline
Reviewed for By: Ashley Griffin

Gerry Goldstein ©2020  Ben Steinfeld, Jessie Austrian

  You may have heard “Cymbeline” referred to amongst Shakespearian scholars as “The Problem Play.” This ominous title has been widely adopted mainly because “Cymbeline” defies categorization. In the First Folio it was listed as a Tragedy. However, the play does not end with unredeemable fatal flaws, and the entire cast dead. It doesn’t end with a wedding, so it’s not technically a Comedy either (not to mention that the beheading, attempted murder, and other sordid deeds put a damper on that categorization as well.) It seems to be accepted as a Romance, which basically means that it ends relatively ok. In common circles “Cymbeline” is referred to as “that play I’ve never heard of because I never read it in school, the local theater’s never done a production of it, there’s no film, and when I checked it out at the library, it just didn’t make any sense.”

In the interest of full disclosure I must now state that “Cymbeline” is one of my all time favorite Shakespeare plays. Certainly my favorite romance (yes, toping off “The Winter’s Tale” and even “The Tempest”) and is a serious contender for overall favorite (certainly in the top three.) My first experience with the play was seeing a production at the Royal Shakespeare Company.  I’ve since seen various productions, including the recent Lincoln Center production, and have even had the opportunity to play Imogen (one of my favorite roles.) I know this play very very well, and it is near and dear to my heart.

Sadly, it’s rare that I see a good production of it. And this goes back to what I said in the beginning: despite my love for it (or maybe it’s WHY I love it) “Cymbeline” IS a problem play. It’s odd, it defies category, and frankly, it could use a dramaturge.

The Fiasco Theater, and Theatre For A New Audience’s production that opened tonight at the New Victory Theater (one of my favorite venues, and indeed institutions in the city by the way – though they did not produce “Cymbeline” themselves) is possibly the best production of “Cymbeline” I’ve seen. It’s certainly the one that works the best, and yes, I’m including the R.S.C production in that statement.

The simplest plot summary for “Cymbeline” (and the one I usually give my friends) is it’s “Shakespeare does Snow White.” Seriously. Check it out:

In ancient Britain King Cymbeline has (besides two lost sons who disappeared in infancy) a daughter named Imogen. Her mother has died, and Cymbeline has remarried a, well, wicked stepmother with a clod of a son named Cloten who she’s intent upon marrying Imogen to and thereby securing the throne for him. Imogen however, against her father’s wishes has married Posthumus – the orphaned son of one of Cymbeline’s greatest warriors who was treated as Cymbeline’s own son until his marriage to Imogen. At the start of the play Cymbeline is in a rage over his daughter’s marriage, Posthumus is banished, and Imogen is pining for his return.

Gerry Goldstein ©2020  Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young, Paul L. Coffey

This is where the “fairy tale” kicks in. Falsely believing Imogen to have been unfaithful, Posthumus orders his servant Pisanio (one of my all time favorite Shakespearian characters and played with charm, grace and wit by Paul L. Coffey) to take Imogen into the woods and kill her. He takes her into the woods, but can not kill her, instead sending her into the forest disguised as a boy in the hopes that by Posthumus thinking her dead his grief will cause him to repent and all to be set right. Before sending her into the forest he gives her a potion that he was given by the Queen. Pisanio thinks it’s a healing draught, the Queen thinks it’s poison, and the apothecary who made it tells the audience it’s really a potion that will make a person seem dead for a time before waking. Just think Romeo and Juliet. Or a poison apple.

Imogen ventures into the woods taking refuge with…you guessed it! A group of men living in a small house. Imogen drinks the potion, everyone thinks she’s dead, and when she wakes, everything is eventually put right.

This production made two bold choices that made all the difference to it working. 1.) It made cuts. And it made really smart cuts. The entire show only ran two and a half hours with an intermission (which is a miracle for a Shakespeare play) and omits the parts that, frankly, REALLY don’t make sense (such as Posthumus’s dream/delusion in the second act, otherwise known as “the part no one knows what to do with”) or aren’t vital to the plot. 2.) It tries to get as close as possible to the environment in which the play would have originally been performed. Meaning, they create an intimate and ensemble atmosphere. The house lights are never totally turned off, the cast never leaves stage (they walk around before the show and during intermission, and when they’re not in a scene they are watching and responding to the action as audience members.) One particularly lovely moment was when two actors started minorly improving and not only could the audience not stop laughing, neither could the other cast members. All the actors assist in changing costumes, the (minimal) set, playing instruments, and, perhaps the best choice of all, each play multiple characters. The entire play is done with a cast of six. This creates an SNL esque ensemble feeling and adds brilliant hilarity to the oft criticized ending where all the plot points are set right in all but unbelievable ways. They also REALLY talk to the audience during asides and soliloquies, which is essential to this play especially.

One of the best things about this production is that it’s funny. Shakespeare is often put on a pedestal, as in some ways it of course should be. But the truth is that even his tragedies have immense humor in them, and, in his time Shakespeare was not writing to be lofty, but to entertain the masses. The songs in his plays were “pop” songs of his day, and his humor was bawdy to say the least.  As a brilliant Shakespeare teacher of mine used to say: “In Shakespeare’s day there were two main forms of entertainment: Plays, and Bear Baiting (in which a bear would have to fight some other animal, and people would place bets on who would win.) Shakespeare beat Bear Baiting, not because he was smarter, but because he was funnier, and gorier.” This production has created beautiful, smart arrangements of the songs in “Cymbeline” and, while paying homage to Elizabethan music, has added a clever, and very entertaining sound to them, most notably in the bluegrass style given to the songs sung by the “lower class” characters. And the multifacited trunk (set design by Jean-Guy Lecat) was a stroke of genius. 

Gerry Goldstein ©2020  Jessie Austrian and Noah Brody

The cast was all around wonderful. Jessie Austrian was channeling the wonderful Bryce Dallas Howard in her performance as Imogen and did a lovely intelligent job with what has been described as “Shakespeare’s greatest heroine in a play far from worthy of her.” Ms. Austrian added a beautiful humor to Imogen, which was welcome in a role that is often treated with sacrosanct reverence. Emily Young struck just the right notes in her roles, especially in the complex role of the wicked queen. Andy Grotelueschen made brilliant transitions between his characters, Noah Brody struck just the right balance between kind strength and passionate whimsy, and Ben Steinfeld was the most human Iachimo I’ve seen. It’s a brilliant testimony to how an ensemble company, when done right can truly succeed in that Mr. Steinfeld and Mr. Brody were the co directors. This was a work that was completely created by this ensemble. 

The one disappointment of the evening was in the interpretation of what is possibly the most famous moment of the play: the scene where Imogen learns that she was brought to the woods to be killed and begs Pisanio to murder her overwhelmed by her grief at her husband’s betrayal. This is one place where the cuts were not helpful as important beats were lost. And the scene was played almost more for anger and annoyance then for the devastation and heartbreak it warranted. This was the moment I longed for vulnerability from both characters. Instead there was a sharp contrast between Pisanio’s description of Imogen: “What shall I need to draw my sword? The paper hath cut her throat already.” Imogen seemed less like someone who had had her throat cut, and more like she wanted to tackle Posthumus to the ground. And the act break was a rather odd place to end.

In many ways “Cymbeline” can be viewed as the bookend to “Hamlet.” Many have described “Hamlet” as a play about the dangers of over thinking, and an inability to act. In “Cymbeline” no one (with the exception possibly of Imogen and Pisanio who, though emotional manage to reign themselves in in time to avoid doing any serious harm) thinks about anything. Everyone reacts instantaneously with their emotions. Everyone makes rash, and often deadly decisions in fits of rage that are usually completely unwarranted in the first place. It could almost be viewed as a play about the dangers of lacking faith, and putting yourself in the place of God.  Taking it upon yourself to doll out judgment and punishment, often without even verifying that your decisions are even based in truth. The charming thing about “Cymbeline” is that in the end we are all able to sit back and laugh at the folly of our overly passionate decisions. Characters in other plays don’t often fare as fortunately.

“Cymbeline” is one of my all time favorite plays, and I was thrilled to be so charmed and delighted by this production. Please go and see it, and treat yourself to discovering one of Shakespeare’s hidden gems. Not to mention to two brilliant theater companies who I hope to see much more of in the future. They have a new fan in me.

New Victory Theater : 209 West 42nd St