Monday, January 24, 2011

Shakespeare Naked

Could it be a trend, oh pretty please say it is. Ben Brantley in the New York Times reviews a production of Shakepeare's Cymberline by the Fiasco Theater, and contrasts it with the megaproduction literally next door to it--Broadway's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark--as well as the prevailing fashion for producing Shakespeare. First, Spidey:

"Credibly portraying incredible feats of derring-do; bringing elaborate battle scenes to life in ways in which you can tell who’s on what side and who’s winning; organically blending music into the action and fluidly evoking shifts of time and scene: with a cast of exactly six and a budget that (I feel safe in assuming) is the merest fraction of the $65 million lavished on “Spider-Man,” the Fiasco Theater makes such accomplishments seem like child’s play in its charming production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline.” True, unlike the aerially acrobatic “Spider-Man,” this show offers nothing that flies — unless you count the spirits of the actors and the audience watching them."

(In case you haven't been following this, the Spider-Man production has been plagued with problems, the most obvious of which (apart, apparently, from the script) has been trouble getting Spidey's wall-crawling and flying through the air accomplished without splattering the actor. That's the background to Brantley's joke, though it isn't really funny that several people have been injured already, one of them seriously.)


The Fiasco “Cymbeline,” like the British director Declan Donnellan’s version of several years ago, starts from the premise that a complicated story is best told simply. There is next to no conceptual varnish on this production, which is directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld... The stage at the New Victory is correspondingly naked. The set (designed by Jean-Guy Lecat, lighted by Tim Cryan) is made up of two crates, a sheet and what is accurately described in the program as a “fabulous trunk” (designed by Jacques Roy), which figures significantly in the headless corpse scene. The costumes (by Whitney Locher) are a comfortable medley of breeches, shirts and dresses that suggest a fairy-tale timelessness. The acting is similarly free of elaborate interpretive flourishes...Though everyone speaks the speech with clarity and feeling, no one is serving up complex psychological portraiture. Nor is anyone doing the sort of cartoonish goofing on their characters that has become all too common to Shakespeare these days."

His conclusion: "Despite the doubling, tripling and quadrupling of roles, I have never seen a “Cymbeline” as easy to follow as this one. The music (overseen by Mr. Steinfeld and performed by the cast), which ranges from Renaissance madrigals to hillbilly ballads, unobtrusively signals changes of tone and scene.

And while the few props and sticks of furniture are put to wonderfully multifarious use (that multi-paneled trunk really is pretty fabulous), there’s none of the aren’t-we-clever, self-congratulatory spirit that often accompanies such acts of theatrical legerdemain. For once, the play itself really is the thing, and nothing is allowed to block its view, even actorly vanity."

Anyone hereabouts contemplating such an approach has to appreciate first that doing theatre simply and cheaply is a very good strategy for theatres without a lot of money. But also that such theatre depends on really knowing and exploring the text with really good actors. When I see Shakespeare full of gimmicks, the first thing I think of is that Shakespeare scares these folks half to death.

Brantley's review and this production are both worth considering. They suggest to me the possibility that this naked approach could come back into style, as it was briefly in the early 60s, which at least grants the permission of fashionability to the insecure. But it's also worth noting that Cyberline is judged a minor work, and simply telling the story has befuddled a lot of earlier attempts (though I doubt there have been that many.) Something slightly different might be necessary for one of the major plays. But the idea is sound. The play's the thing. Not the bells and whistles.

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