Theater in its purest form is an exercise in magical simplicity. Much of what passes for theater today is far closer to the craft of spectacle, which is wonderful in its own right but should not be confused with the art of transforming a relative empty space into another breathing world through the efforts of actors, a director, and a script. Cymbeline is one of those most miraculous of manifestations; armed only with six very talented actors, the immortal words of the Shakespeare and a handful of props and set pieces, they have summoned the muses and created one of the most memorable stage productions of 2011.
Paring down a roster of fifteen characters to a cast of six is no small accomplishment, but making it feel like that's the way the play was intended to be performed is a unique wonder. This ensemble effort is without a weak performance, and naming a stand-out favorite would largely be a personal matter. Andy Grotelueschen reigns in the title role of Cymbeline but makes his most memorable contributions doubling as his own stepson, Cloten. Enriching ignorance and conceit to their inherent comic value, Grotelueschen is a master of comedic pauses and deadpan deliveries. Throwaway lines are not what one is liable to associate with Shakespearean dialog, but Grotelueschen manages to unearth this unlikely potential, keeping a straight face true to his character while inducing laughter.
Emily Young (center, above) mines a similar vein of unexpected jesting, working with nuance through her seductive eyes and well-placed pregnant pauses to develop humor in the character of the Queen. Ben Steinfeld (left, above) oozes a bold Iachimo, confident of his every move and cool in his approach. Steinfeld's presence is steady and his mode of speaking smooth, calmly paced, and pleasing to the ear. Jessie Austrian makes an innocently angelic Imogen, beaming with youthful love, Paul L. Coffey (Pisanio) (right, above) deliveries rich subtext in silence as he patiently absorbs the words spoken to him by his masters, and Noah Brody brings power and pain to Posthumus's misguided monolog against the pitfalls of female infidelity. There is not a one in this troupe who does not speak the speech, nor is there one who fumbles upon a single word in interpreting the text. They know the language, the layers it contains and what is being said, allowing them to tell it truly in plain talk that translates with rich ease to the ears of their audience.
All the more startling than the existence of this perfect cast is that the production's directors are among their numbers. Co-directors Brody and Steinfeld have somehow managed to maintain the painter's outside vision while neatly working themselves into the tapestry in a seamless manner. They play brilliantly with the double and triple casting, plucking where ripe for humorous acknowledgment of the device without derailing the drama of the moment. Their pacing is relaxed and unfolds with a natural rhythm, and the connection that exists between the actors is real and palpable. This effortless symbiosis is further complemented by the use of on-stage instruments to set the mood, create sound effects, and provide music for the songs written into the text. The play's most recognized feature would likely be one of its musical components, namely the sung eulogy that begins, "Fear no more the heat o' the sun…" (notably utilized by Stephen Sondheim in his song "Fear No More" from The Frogs), and it is beautifully dealt with in this production.
As one of Shakespeare's under-appreciated plays, Cymbeline does not often get the attention it deserves, but this production makes for a happy marriage of the humor and light drama that it has to offer. Now with a much-deserved extension, Cymbeline will run through January 15. Productions of this caliber are seldom available; letting this opportunity pass you by would be a regrettable mistake. - C. Jefferson Thom
Barrow Street Theatre: 27 Barrow Street at Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.