Cymbeline and The Misanthrope
Too often, revivals of classics dont so much resurrect plays as render them undeadeither moving them to a place and time where they cant properly survive, or staging them in such slavish fashion that they never really live. Beware these zombie plays. They may not eat your brains, but theyll consume several hours of your evening.
Currently, Fiasco Theater (under the auspices of Theatre for a New Audience at the New Victory) and the Pearl Theatre (in residence at City Center) are offering revivals of Renaissance plays that mostly avoid the savor of the graveFiasco, in particular. Shakespeares 1611 Cymbeline is a tragedy that somehow becomes a comedy, while Molières 1666 The Misanthrope is a comedy darkened by its finale. Neither was an immediate triumph in its day. Seventeenth- and 18th-century commentators condemned Cymbeline as a patchwork, a thing of unresisting imbecility. Molières contemporary critics hailed The Misanthrope as a partial success at best.
Fiasco Theater, a cohort of six alumni of Browns MFA acting program, practices a frolicsome form of poor theater. On a stage bare except for two blocks and one trunk, they gleefully undertake poisoning, beheading, cross-dressing, betrayal, an astonishingly brief British-Roman war, and a scene of recognition so extensive and convoluted as to make the imagination boggle. (Theyve cut the scene in which Jupiter descends on the back of an eagle, however. Apparently there are set pieces for which even the sturdiest trunk cannot substitute.)
By William Shakespeare
New Victory Theatre
209 West 42nd Street
City Center Stage II
131 West 55th Street
This isnt an emotionally affecting Cymbelineand it doesnt provide much in the way of intellectual heft, either. But the production does offer a troupe of actors made positively giddy by the opportunity to tear through so many roles in succession. This excitement is infectious, as are a few of the performances, particularly Ben Steinfeld as the sleazy Iachimo. Fiasco renders a potentially confusing text with wonderful lucidity, making a problem play not much of a problem at all.
Some of Fiascos lightheartedness would have enlivened The Misanthrope, which seemed in danger of stifling itself beneath the weight of its sumptuous wigs and costumes. The play concerns Alceste (Sean McNall, in a role originated by Molière), a man so appalled by the hypocrisy of the French court that hes tempted to break with the whole human race, even as he nurses a passion for Célimène (Janie Brookshire), the most insincere of the lot.
If Fiascos Cymbeline evokes a kind of timeless present, the Pearl locates The Misanthrope, under Joseph Hanreddys direction, firmly in the 17th century, miring it in hose and lace and a set that cheaply echoes Versailless Hall of Mirrors. This very nearly keeps it from resonating with our own age, to which it is extremely relevant. But Molières delightful jokes resist suppression, and several of the supporting turns, such as Joey Parsonss prudish Arsinoe, are delicious. McNall excels throughout, screwing his cherub face into a perpetual scowl, making every line ooze with contempt. Youd have to be a true misanthrope not to adore him.
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