I have no intention of paying good money to rubberneck at the fiasco scheduled to be in previews at the Foxwoods until the early George P. Bush Administration, and, indeed, after some of the things Julie Taymor has been quoted as saying I’m not sure I’d take a comp ticket either.
But a very different kind of Fiasco right next door demonstrates exactly what you can do if you aren’t burdened with $65 million to play with, but do remember how to have fun.
The play they are having such fun with is Cymbeline. Now, Cymbeline appears on first reading to be a kind of Forbidden Shakespeare, taking key elements from his most famous plays and putting them in a blender. We have a cross-dressing heroine out of As You Like It; a husband deceived into a jealous rage, just like in Othello; an old father deceived by an evil woman into turning on his true daughter, derived from King Lear; a gruesomely comical decapitation that wouldn’t be out of place in Titus Andronicus; poison that is really only a sleeping potion, familiar from Romeo and Juliet; lost royals rustically raised, which you have to have in any Shakespearean Romance, from Pericles onward; Roman-era geopolitics patched in from Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps; even a literal deus ex machina, albeit one that doesn’t actually resolve the plot. And then, of course, the most farcically over-the-top recognition scene in all of drama.
And yet – this farcical plot contains some startlingly moving poetry. Not only the magnificent funeral song, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” sung by Arviragus and Guiderius over the (apparent) body of the boy (actually their sister, Imogen, though they don’t know it yet), but also this, from that mad recognition scene:
Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?
Think that you are upon a rocl; and now
Throw me again.
Hang there like a fruit, my soul.
Till the tree die!
This, to the man that had ordered her murdered. Who has just struck her, not knowing who she is. “Throw me again” – she dares him. Imogen can stand tall in the company of Rosalind and Cordelia and Desdemona, and the fact that she is able to move us even though she’s the heroine of a parodically absurd plot like this one is the greatest testament to her power as a character.
The Fiasco Theatre’s production makes the most of the absurdity of the text, just going with it and not worrying about it. Cymbeline has a fairly large cast list; this production has only six actors, and they never leave the view of the audience. The mad recognition scene at the end is rendered even more mad by repeated changes of character, without the opportunity to change costume or even step off into the wings – indeed, at least once an actor needs to change character in response to a question from himself. Settings vary widely, from royal bedchambers to the wild Welsh countryside, and include a massive battle between the Roman and British armies, a battle in which multiple characters out of uniform appear unexpectedly to turn the tide and one character changes uniforms repeatedly to fight on both sides. All these settings are magically brought to life using a single piece of scenery, a trunk with an apparently infinite array of secret hatches and compartments, such that it can serve as trunk and bed and throne and cave and in a pinch even a guillotine. And I have never seen the battle scene more successfully realized than in this production, with a mere six actors caught up in a whirlwind of activity – swords clashing, arrows flying, hairs-breadth escapes on every side with no way of knowing who is who or what is what or how the day will end. It was positively exhilarating.
What they lose is the emotional power of certain moments. Particularly the recognition scene, which is played entirely for laughs, but also other moments – Imogen’s awakening against the body of what she thinks is her decapitated husband, for example, or Posthumus’s determination at least to die fighting for Britain. The text is cut considerably, but most of those cuts struck me as well-considered – particularly dropping the dream sequence with Posthumus’s dead parents and the descent of Ganymede – and those that didn’t (like Caius Lucius’s shocked reaction when Fidele – really Imogen in disguise – does not use her one boon from the king to win his release) were not great losses. But a huge amount of poetry is lost – most indefensibly, the funeral song is cut short to make room for “Long Time Travelin’” – a lovely song, but instead of Shakespeare?
But what is gained is much greater than what is lost. This is the fifth production of this supposedly-infrequently-produced play I have seen, and I cannot tell you what a joy it is not to have had to sit through another lugubrious, high-concept production. There are depths of emotion in the play that this production couldn’t reach – but most of the other productions I’ve seen didn’t reach them either, and they also weren’t any fun to watch. So the moral would seem to be: have fun. Because if you aren’t, most likely we won’t be either.