Monday, October 31, 2011

Off-Broadway: Fiasco Theatre's "Cymbeline" - A Charming Performance

Undoubtedly, Broadway is one of the main things most people aim for when they are in New York City. For her first ever visit to the megacity, the intrepid Red Dot Diva felt a need for another Shakespearean fix instead. Mainly because she is not a big fan of flashy musicals. (Are those horrified gasps she hears from some distant corner over there??)

Her 'play date' had suggested "Avenue Q", but she had already watched a satisfyingly entertaining version helmed by a Filipino cast on Red Dot Island a couple of years back. So, having scoured a comprehensive list online, it was settled that Red Dot Diva's first theatre outing in New York would be the lesser known Shakespearean play "Cymbeline" at the Barrow Street Theatre - an intimate 199-seat off-Broadway venue. The decision was firmly supported by the many rave reviews from critics for this particular adaptation by Fiasco Theatre.

As a play, "Cymbeline" seems like a mish-mash of plot ideas re-used from many of Shakespeare's other plays. There is the harsh and clueless king, a beautiful heroine (who crossdresses!), an ambitious queen, star-crossed lovers as full in love as they are in jealous rage, and of course, devious plottings and betrayals. And oh yes, even a bloody beheading. With all those mixed in a heady haphazard brew, "Cymbeline"'s multi-plotlines feels messily convoluted.

It is not a Shakespeare play that is often performed nor liked. Not especially in Red Dot Island anyway. Red Dot Diva surmises that one of the main reasons that this is so, would be the sheer task of making the play interesting and coherent enough for the still maturing theatre-going audience here.

All it took to make the play accessible and entertaining in a lovable kind of way was the efforts of a 6-actor troupe from Fiasco Theatre. The play, directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, was simplified without losing its essence and easily transported the audience to various locations from Britain to Rome, and even to some retro-hillbilly version of a remote countryside.

Feistily performed by the very attractive ensemble cast, Red Dot Diva found that one could hardly take one's eyes off the actors as they vibrantly flit across the stage through the different scenes and characters. At least four of them taking multiple roles from the 15 characters in the play. And in such a versatile and joyful fashion that Red Dot Diva has never seen before. It was quite obvious that the actors were having fun on stage and the vibe was intoxicating.

Good-looking Ben Steinfeld was impishly devious as the play's villain, Iachimo. His large expressive eyes quite the scene stealer. But Red Dot Diva also thoroughly enjoyed Andy Grotelueschen's boisterous take on his roles - King Cymbeline, the useless lout of a Prince Cloten and Cornelius the physician. Cornelius with his ridiculous steampunk googles was an utter amusement to Red Dot Diva.

Red Dot Diva was also impressed with the minimalistic set, its effectiveness enhanced by the very clever use of props, which include a white sheet of cloth, a 'fabulous trunk' (designed by Jacques Roy) and a couple of wooden boxes. The multi-panelled magical trunk, in particular, was most creatively used as a pool table and cave in some of the scenes.

Then, there was the use of music to indicate the passing of time or change of scenery. The actors were surprisingly talented with different kinds of musical instruments and the folksy tunes brought an added dimension to the company's fresh take on the play.

At two and a half hours, the play ran a little too long for Red Dot Diva's attention span. Or perhaps she was quite exhausted that night after running ragged for three days at a crowded NY comic convention. That did not however, deter the fact that Fiasco Theatre's "Cymbeline" is one of the best Shakespearean productions she has ever watched.

It is a production definitely worth catching, especially if one is hungry for a Shakespeare play in New York. Red Dot Diva highly recommends it.

After all, for her first theatre performance in New York, on her last night in New York, watching "Cymbeline" was a lovely, memorable experience. Of course, the cozy companionship of her 'play date' may very well have been a major contributory factor to that too.

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