The Fiasco Company is a seriously cute young troupe, and this commercial mounting of their offbeat garage-band treatment of the Bard’s dopiest play should be an inspiration to other M.F.A. grads looking for a way to peddle their wares in the legit marketplace. That alone should guarantee a nice run for this clever and modestly scaled show, which charmed auds in two previous productions and is now playing an open-ended run in the strategic vicinity of N.Y.U. But any Bardolators expecting a genuinely inventive interpretation of this so-called “problem play” might wonder what all the raves were about.
The six personable performers who make up the company wisely make light of the convoluted plot — so idiotic that some scholars suspect it may have been written the play as a parody. In any event, the story concerns the trials and tribulations of a princess who flees her father’s royal wrath after marrying a commoner, and the near-tragic complications that result when her nitwit husband is drawn into making a wager on the virtue of his new bride. The less said about the multiple sub-plots, the better.
Fiasco was born when six graduates of the Brown U./Trinity Rep MFA acting program formed an ensemble in 2009 and began fooling around with this understandably neglected play. Essentially, what they did was liberate the text from its theatrical trappings — from the formal court settings to the brutal scenes of war — and speak the words clearly.
The play is staged simply, on a round wooden stage (designed by Jean-Guy Lecat) with no set pieces other than a big wooden trunk (a work of art by Jacques Roy) that does marvelous duty, serving as everything from a chest in milady’s chamber and a secret cave deep in the woods to a handy container for hiding a headless body.
Whitney Locher’s costumes — basic drab weeds with multiple add-on pieces — are just as imaginative. With only six actors taking on two dozen roles, transformations have to be quick and clever. Characters come and go with the drop of a hat, a pair of glasses, a reversible vest.
Strange to say, and despite having Fiasco members Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld at the helm, the show doesn’t bear the imprint of its collective creation or even establish a cohesive company acting style. In fact, the only times that the company really feels like a company is when they are singing, either a cappella or to their own musical accompaniment. Otherwise, the acting styles are from hither and yon.
Andy Grotelueschen, the big, jolly, hairy guy who plays King Cymbeline and two other roles, has a feel for broad comedy and happily plays to his strength. While his blustering Cymbeline is a proper comic foil, he gets more laughs as Cloten, the Queen’s loutish son from a previous marriage and an authentic buffoon. But even in a minor part like Cornelius, the court physician, Grotelueschen is always trolling for laughs, and generally finding them.
Emily Young also thrives on comedy. Her duplicitous Queen is right out of a Disney cartoon and she boldly plunges into the high corn for her droll portrayal of an crook-backed old crone who lives in a cave.
On the other end of the acting spectrum, Jessie Austrian delivers a straight-forward and at times quite touching performance as Imogen, the play’s long-suffering heroine. As her foolish husband Posthumus, Brody also plays it straight and, unfortunately, stiff.
Which leaves the other two members of the ensemble straddling the stylistic middle ground and making a surprisingly good job of it. Busy-busy Steinfeld (whose juggling act includes service as co-director and music director) is a conventional but effective Iachimo, the dastardly villain who tricks Posthumus into betraying his faithful Imogen. While flashing a bit of ironic attitude from time to time, thesp never actually twirls his moustache and Iachimo is the better for it.
Paul L. Coffey has it much harder playing multiple secondary parts. But he’s a versatile performer and believable in all his roles, from country bumpkin to Roman Legionnaire. And more than anyone else in the company, he has a hellish time running around in the final scene, hilariously jumping from one character to the next in order to wrap up all the subplots.