Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Cymbeline by William Shakespeare

L - R Ben Steinfeld, Jessie Austrian

By Joe Straw

Why do women love men who are prone to emotional errors in judgment?  And, is forgiveness absolute?

Fiasco Theatre Company, from New York, started this play in the same fashion as a recent production of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  The actors came on stage, got into character, and were inaudibly preparing.  But the comparison changed when the audience suddenly got very quiet and Jessie Austrian, an actress playing Imogen, turned around and said: (and I’m paraphrasing) “Oh, we’re not starting yet.  You can talk amongst yourselves.”  Well, that’s kind of interesting – breaking the fourth wall – and in the same breath, making us feel right at home, with this company, and with Shakespeare.

And then, if that weren’t enough, at intermission, audience members approached the actors on stage, and carried on conversations until the actors were ready to begin. Is this going too far? Are we getting a little too comfortable?

Funny, this Shakespeare is not the dry toast I had for breakfast, long ago.  – The Narrator

Fiasco Theater presents Cymbeline by William Shakespeare directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, at The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica through December 23, 2012.  It is a wonderful production; performed by extraordinary actors, giving it their all with music, song, and sound effects that completely fulfill our visual, auditory and emotional experience.  
The six actors, (playing fifteen roles, in a play that has approximately 40 roles), never leave the stage, rather they sit upstage in the semi-darkness, creating sound effects, playing musical instruments, and handle other props that are these actor’s armamentarium.   

Cymbeline (Andy Grotelueschen) was not dead, to begin with.  He is the powerful King of Britain, a country, at that time, that is making inroads towards world domination.  But, Cymbeline is bent with age, his decrepit body struggles with the use of a cane, and the coat he wears barely keeps the cold away from his fragile body.  Still, everyone, within his shouting distance knows: he rules Britain.

But, those besieging Cymbeline appreciates he will not live forever. Imogen (Jessie Austrian), by position of being first born, is next in line to the throne after her father passes.  With that in mind and simply put, the play is about the struggle for power.  

Cymbeline is married to Queen (Emily Young) who is the mother to an idiot son, Cloten (Andy Grotelueschen).  The Queen envisions Cloten as being one step away from the throne. But, Cloten is conflicted first, with a disease of self-infatuation, (a feverish love for himself) and secondly with Imogen, his beautiful stepsister.  

Our story starts off with a man in a predicament. Posthumus, a gentleman of questionable character traits, marries Imogen, daughter to Cymbeline by a former queen. But Imogen’s father has enough spirit in him to banish Posthumus from the kingdom, for reasons not entirely clear.  

Posthumus chooses to flee to Italy. But, before he sets off, Imogen gives him a ring.

“This diamond was my mother’s; take it, heart;
But keep it till you woo another wife,
When Imogen is dead.” – Imogene

Posthumus says he will never marry and he will keep the rings until his death. (Math formula: man + promises/Shakespeare’s play = promises a man will not keep)  But, in exchange, he gives her a bracelet to wear while they are apart.

In the waning moments of their time together Posthumus will not let go of Imogen. But the Queen, recognizing their love, hustles them along until it is too late.  King Cymbeline finds them together and swears he will kill Posthumus unless he leaves.

“The gods protect you!
And bless the good remainders of the court!
I am gone.” – Posthumus

(Interesting comment: “good remainders” meaning there are others who are not so good.)

Posthumus leaves without burning his bridges.  

Meanwhile Cloten, muses out loud to his servant, why Imogen would love Posthumus and not the gloriousness that is, him.

“Sir, as I told you always, her beauty and her brain go not together; she’s a good sign, but I have seen small reflection of her wit.” – Servant

(The servant is trying to win points.)

When Posthumus sails off to Italy, Imogen confides to Pisanio that she misses him already and would have wept uncontrollably had she seen his ship sail off.  She wonders out loud what she could have said at the last meeting between them.

“Or I could make him swear
The shes of Italy should not betray
Mine interest and his honour,” - Imogen

No, I think Posthumus is capable of getting himself into enough trouble all by himself, and he does.  

Posthumus meets Iachimo (Ben Steinfeld) a hustler in an Italian pool hall (sound effects included) and right away Iachimo takes a liking to Posthumus’ ring. And thus begins his quest to obtain it by any means necessary not excluding his wit.

“I praised her as I rated her; so do I my stone.” – Posthumus

“What do you esteem it at?” – Iachimo

“More than the world enjoys.” – Posthumus

“Either your unparagoned mistress is dead, or she’s outprized by a trifle.” – Iachimo

Well, those are fighting words, and Posthumus is always up for a challenge.

“I will lay you 10,000 ducats to your ring, that, commend me to the court where your lady is, with no more advantage than the opportunity of a second conference, and I will bring from thence that honour of hers which you imagine so reserved.” - Iachimo

Foolishly, Posthumus takes up the offer and Iachimo set sails to England.

Cornelius (Andy Grotelueschen), the doctor, provides a deadly potion to the Queen to use at her discretion. She says she will not use it on a human. (I wonder if she thinks the King, human?) In any case, and as an aside, Cornelius tells us he does not trust her and provides her with a potion that will only kill dogs or cats.

The Queen then gives it to Pisanio and tells him that it is a wonder drug and the drug has brought back the King five times from death.

Once in England Iachimo immediately meets with Imogen and gives her a letter from her husband, Posthumus, in Italy.  Iachimo is stunned by her beauty and immediately wants to, hold her. 

Iachimo sends tidings from Italy.   Posthumus is having a great time there, always laughing, robust, with many Italian women about.

“Is he disposed to mirth?  I hope he is.” – Imogen

“Exceedingly pleasant; non a stranger there
So merry and so gamesome; he is call’d
The Briton Reveller” – Iachimo  

Quickly Iachimo takes Imogen into his arms but his advances fails.  Imogen tells him to get out.  But, in order to save the wager, Iachimo reflects fast to say he was only kidding, that he was challenging her, and she passed the test.  He tells her that Posthumus “…sits ‘mongst men like a descended god.” He deeply apologizes for his deception and informs her that he is leaving soon, but asks a favor. He has a trunk with rare and expensive gifts that he is taking back to his emperor.

“To have them in safe stowage: may it please you
To take them in protection?” Iachimo

“…I will keep them in my bedchamber.” – Imogen

Iachimo breathes with incomparable delight.

L - R Ben Steinfeld, Jessie Austrian

And later that night, Iachimo silently crawls out of that same trunk, now placed under Imogen’s bed, as the sounds of crickets break the tranquility, and beauty lies fast asleep. He stands soundlessly, and observes her exquisiteness.  He watches her breathe, and gets a little carried away before he comes to his senses.

“But my design,
To note the chamber; I will write all down;
Such and such pictures; there the window; such
The adornment of her bed;” – Iachimo

But the figure of her sleeping lures Iachimo to her bedside and he struggles mightily to wrench the bracelet from her arm, lifts her nightgown, and shivers with pleasure at the sight of a mold on her left breast. With a slight displeasure of having to leave this sight, he crawls back into the trunk and then later back to Italy to win the wager.

Later Cloten approaches Imogen to swear his love for her.

“By the very truth of it, I care not for you,
And am so near the lack of charity” – Imogen

Well, this doesn’t go over too well with Cloten.  Suddenly, remembering her true love, Imogen discovers the bracelet is missing from her arm.  She sends Pisanio out to find it.  

Meanwhile, back in Italy, the not so honorable Iachimo, convinces the not so smart and easily manipulated Posthumus that he is very familiar with his wife, Imogen, by means of the bracelet and knowing about the mold on her left breast.  

Posthumus is distraught and sends a letter to Pisanio to take Imogen out into the woods and murder her. Pisanio is taken aback by the request in the letter, but he does so only to show Imogen the letter.  He gives her the poison (medicine) to help her ailments and Imogen crawls into a cave and later discovers a countrified Belaria (Emily Young) and her supposed sons Guiderius (Paul L. Coffey) and Arviragus (Ben Steinfeld).

The acting by the Fiasco Company was exceptional under the guidance of directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld. Given the economic realties of moving a company to Los Angeles one would have hope for two more actors to avoid a little confusion. Still, in this slightly truncated version of Cymbeline, the point of play was made and the audience sat in quiet rapture the whole night. Brody and Steinfeld give Cymbeline a unique take that is exquisite in design and purpose. All in all, this was a wonderful night of theatre. Brody and Steinfeld served as Fight Director and Music Director respectively.

Andy Grotelueschen was exceptional in the characters he portrayed.  His characters were all-different but at one point in the play the cast in unison asked: “Who are you?”  He put on his glasses and was immediately Cornelius, the doctor. Cloten, the step-brother is an interesting character and can go many ways, but if his objective is to secure Imogen to get closer to the throne, then making the choices to get her is in the best interest of the character’s future. Cloten was his nasty self throughout, not really a good way to get the girl.  And if you’re not going to wipe (audience members will get this) it cannot be a good way to woo the girl. Still Grotelueschen’s performance and his exuberance carries him a long way, his voice exceptional, his manner incomparable.

Jessie Austrian is stunning and did a marvelous job as Imogen. Her love and objective are quite clear.  Because of her beauty, she fights those that try to win her affections, but she has her sights on the man she married and no one else.  Next in line, she may be, but does she have the mental capacity to carry the crown? She is intelligent, but swayed by the men who offer her untruths, she runs into the forest misguided by a servant who may want to kill her, and she accepts all the Italian is willing to give her.  When will she learn? Austrian’s skills, her craft, her character are all, impeccable.  

Noah Brody played Posthumus and a Roman Captain. Brody has a nice presence on stage.  He did everything required for this role.  But, one couldn’t help but believe there are more choices to make in the role of Posthumus. Posthumus is not a perfect man, he makes a lot of mistakes, being banished was one of them, but he never internally questions, or externally questions the will of the king.  And then, when he says he’ll keep the ring until death, the first thing he does is make a wager against the ring, with little emotional inner conflict, or outer physical conflict. And then, he is so distraught when given the news; he wants to kill the woman he loves?  Something ain’t right upstairs with this character.  Brody could have stepped it up a notch; still I regard his performance as exceptional nevertheless.

Paul L. Coffey plays Pisanio, Philario, Caius Lucius, Guiderius all roles for which he has little political power.  But what these characters do is get the point across, of the little things that need fixing, for all the bad intentions of the other characters on stage. Coffey handles the roles with assurance, but seems to be beaten down, and there is a melancholy expression on his face throughout the night, where he takes on the weight of the world (not a lot of humor here). Also, I never got the impression that Pisanio would carry out his master’s request in the country at Milford-Haven or that he even considered it.  Still, there are a number of wonderful moments and Coffey does a fantastic job.  

Emily Young plays Queen, Frenchman (funny, I didn’t hear a French accent), and Belaria, a role generally played by a man, Bellarius, a banished Lord.  Funny about Belaria as the role reminded me of The Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyland.  She was carrying around a washboard, barefoot, and wearing a straw hat.  And her back was slightly bent (from carrying water to the cave?). One, two, three, and they break into song that was funny and totally unexpected, and back wood country. The Queen was an interesting and dangerous character, but on the outside didn’t seem threatening, she was more covert in her intentions than anything.  She spoke in measured tones when she wanted something, the poison, and the son to marry the stepdaughter, but didn’t push hard to reach her objective. She has a strong will, after all, she has married a king.  But did we see enough action (internally or externally) to know that she was going to reach her objective?  Despite my questions, Young is an exceptional actor, has a wonderful smile, and very capable on stage.

Ben Steinfeld has a unique presence on stage and is a marvelous actor. As the character Iachimo, he is sly and sinister and uses his wits to get by in life.  One would think gambling and deception are his only means of survival. Steinfeld made a choice of not taking pleasure of winning the wager.  One would have thought the opposite to be true.  Steinfeld also creates a grand physical life on stage and has the emotional carriage to guide him through the variety of predicaments.  It’s a wonderful role for this marvelous actor and a perfect fit for this delightful actor who knows the craft.

Whitney Locher as the Costume Designer and did a remarkable job.

Tim Cryan was the Lighting Designer.

Jacques Roy was the Trunk Designer that turned out to be a major part of this play.

And of course, it’s the other intangibles, the other work that also makes up all that encompasses a great production.

Caite Hevner:  Properties Designer
Christina Lowe:  Production Stage Manager
Cicely Berry:  Vocal and Text Consultant
Michael Perlman: Assistant Director  

The show has closed but do not miss the opportunity to see Fiasco Theater wherever they are playing.

No comments:

Post a Comment