A six-person Shakespearean production is a tricky thing to stage. Actors and costume designers struggle with creating distinct characters, kings are executed only to reappear as rogues, and, since the small cast is often a monetary necessity, players tend to botch the language and confuse the action; the end result is the kind of stultifying mess that turns people off of Shakespeare in the first place.
If nothing else, Fiasco Theater’s Cymbeline, currently being performed in an extended run at the Barrow Street Theatre, is a pristine example of clarity. Its half-dozen actors sound and look right at home on the stage, and their quick, self-conscious character changes suit the light tone of this production perfectly. With nothing more than a new hat or an appropriately draped sheet, this device manages to maintain its lucidity.
Cymbeline itself, however, is an endlessly baffling play. It was written near the end of Shakespeare’s career, a time when the Bard seems to have become weary with traditional generic conventions (or, more accurately, with subverting traditional generic conventions). The text is an odd mesh of tragedy, comedy and romance, one that never fully commits to a consistent tone. Given the play’s condensed plot, it would be tedious to reiterate here, except to say that it incorporates shadows of his canon: there is a cartoonish Lady Macbeth (Queen), a watered-down Iago (Iachimo), a somewhat more mature Juliet (Imogen) and a somewhat duller Romeo (Posthumus). There is political intrigue, cross-dressing, and music, to boot. It is a kind of overstuffed Shakespeare, bursting at the seams with characters and tropes from the rest of his work.
Fiasco’s Cymbeline is a mixed bag. It is strongest at its funniest, with Emily Young (Queen, Belarius) and Andy Grotelueschen (Cloten, Cornelius) stealing nearly every scene in which they appear. As the Queen, Young slinks around the stage like a cynical Cleopatra, giddily baring her wide, toothy grin. The fun she has plotting her evil deeds is infectious, and she manages to elicit laughter simply by striking a pose. Grotelueschen, large, portly, both notably balding and curly-haired, is ideal for Cloten. He histrionically bellows his lines and excellently emphasizes their irony; while moaning about Imogen falling for Posthumus, he pauses knowingly after declaring, “I mean, the lines of my body are as well drawn as his,” his belly nearly leaking out of the bottom of his shirt.
Still, there is the sense that directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld are always willing to sacrifice depth for belly laughs. The comedy in Cymbeline is partially so interesting because of the play’s darker elements, which are entirely overlooked in this production. Beginning the second half with an old-timey hoedown, for example, is certainly endearing but tonally discordant. And it is easy to forget that Cloten is not an entirely harmless doofus—though he never succeeds, he does intend to take his revenge on the two lovers by murdering Posthumus and then raping Imogen in front of his corpse, noting that then, “in her eyes; there she shall see my valor.” Brody and Steinfeld also cut Iachimo’s scene of remorse and the monologue in which Posthumus prays for his own execution, while the Queen’s death and confession that she never loved her king is reduced to only one line. In the final scene, everyone removes their disguises, is reunited with the one they love, and all trespasses are forgiven; this hasty, sweeping contentedness should come with a sense of unease. Something is not quite right in the way it is written, and yet Brody and Steinfeld play it more like the end of Clue. We should leave the theater feeling tentatively cathartic, not delighted and charmed.
Nonetheless, despite its flaws, Fiasco’s Cymbeline is certainly worth viewing. This may be Shakespeare Light, but it’s Shakespeare Light done very well.