Los Angeles Theater Review: CYMBELINE (The Broad Stage in Santa Monica)

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by Thomas Antoinne on December 15, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


Brown University/Trinity Rep’s MFA program has a solid reputation as theatre arts training for bright, enthusiastic, well-rounded theatre artists.  The challenge for each graduating Brown/Trinity class is to figure out how to transition from the safe isolation of training in provincial Providence, Rhode Island to full-on careers in the far-reaching landscape of the American Theatre.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of CYMBELINE at Broad Stage in Santa MonicaJessie Austrian, Noah Brody, and Ben Steinfeld (Brown/Trinity, MFA’07) solved that problem by founding the Fiasco Theater.  They’ve pared-down Shakespeare’s Cymbeline to a spare showcase, cast themselves in the leads, and seen how far they could take it.  Like the main characters of Cymbeline, good fortune has smiled on Fiasco with a long enough run Off-Broadway to justify the tour currently on the boards at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.  The result is an energetic, if slightly off-kilter vanity project that feels better suited for a high school tour than the Broad companion piece to the Globe’s classy tour of Hamlet.

Part of the problem is the source material.  Cymbeline lacks the poetry of more transcendent romances like The Winter’s Tale and The TempestCymbeline is a fairy tale in search of magic.  It’s a convoluted tale that contains many of the familiar Shakespearean tropes presented much better in other works, be it Claudius and Hero’s infidelity confrontation in Much Ado About Nothing, false death with herbs a la Romeo and Juliet, or the wonderful trousers personae taken on by Rosalind and Viola.  In other plays, Shakespeare is so skillful in his portrayal of restoration and redemption that Cymbeline comes off as inferior from just about every angle.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of CYMBELINE at Broad Stage in Santa MonicaTo compound matters, everyone in the Fiasco cast plays multiple roles, or more accurately, is multiply miscast.  Character actress Jessie Austrian never quite finds her authentic inner leading lady as Imogen.  It’s as if an acting teacher had cast Austrian against type in order to stretch her acting skills. Austrian always holds the role at a distance and rarely lets the audience know the depth of Imogen’s heart.  In addition, Austrian’s vocal choices are often shrill, with an odd, uncomfortable R-coloration.  Ben Steinfeld is one of the stronger performers in the ensemble in terms of actor craft, but his diminutive stature and intrinsic charms make his Iachimo more Puck-like than peer to Iago.  On the surface, handsome Noah Brody appears well cast as the young romantic Posthumous; however, because he squints when he acts, the audience is never given access to the windows of his character’s soul, and his lateral vocal work comes off as regional, amateurish, and downright histrionic at times. It’s as if he’s always showing us he knows how to “act Shakespeare.”  Andy Grotelueschen and Paul L. Coffey in a variety of character roles are equally vocally challenged, making it a challenge for the audience to simply hear the Bard’s words.  Only Emily Young comes close to rising above post-actor training awkwardness.  And yet her Belaria still feels closer to mask work than actually human behavior on stage.  Since Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld also serve as the play’s directors, Young should hardly shoulder the blame.  With all the craft deficiencies and vocal weaknesses on this island of miscast toys, the Brown/Trinity training is not shown well.

What the company lacks in skill, they make up for in enthusiasm. Theatrical flourishes and sleight-of-hand do their best to entertain and distract the audience from the plays flaws, but these tricks, unfortunately, never transform the events on stage into a relevant piece of theatre.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of CYMBELINE at Broad Stage in Santa MonicaThe design team serves the world with an eye for simplicity, creating a very inexpensive, tour-friendly production.  Whitney Locher’s costumes work towards a visually universal look.  Except for curiously inorganic designs on Pisanio’s doublet, Locher’s visual world is satisfying and complete.  Tim Cryan’s lights never draw attention to themselves, with some tasteful candlelight thrown in to good effect.   Jacques Roy’s simple trunk on wheels and versatile fabrics are standard set pieces in this sort of production.  Unfortunately, the trunk becomes more ponderous than graceful, and at times, downright awkward.  Other set pieces – moveable cubes and a few suggested props – undermine the show by giving it an under-produced feel.  In the end, the show feels cheap, rather than providing a simple landscape for a spare narrative.

The one aspect of the production where I can find little fault is the music. Ben Steinfeld’s musical direction is exemplary, and he elicits impeccably blended vocal performances and gorgeous phrasing from the cast of six.  If the production’s overall concept had leaned in the direction of the beautiful folk/country musical score, the resulting production might have discovered a contemporary relevance and depth to Cymbeline.  Instead, we are given first-rate music framing second-rate scenes.

Fiasco Theater should be commended for trying to maintain the Brown/Trinity community of like-minded artists with a shared theatricality sensibility.  While they are doubtlessly doing their best with what talent they have, Brown/Trinity doesn’t seem to be adequately training actors to get under Shakespearean text to bring it fully to life.  If Fiasco continues to develop work together, perhaps a future project might be to explore their folk/country brilliance and produce a new take on Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of CYMBELINE at Broad Stage in Santa Monica

photos by Ari Mintz

Fiasco Theater Company at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica
scheduled to end on December 23, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.thebroadstage.com/Cymbeline

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