Too often, revivals of classics don’t so much resurrect plays as render them undead—either moving
them to a place and time where they can’t 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 they’ll 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 grave—Fiasco, in
particular. Shakespeare’s 1611 Cymbeline is a tragedy that somehow becomes a comedy, while Molière’s 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.” Molière’s contemporary critics hailed The Misanthrope as a partial success at best.
Fiasco Theater, a cohort of six alumni of Brown’s 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. (They’ve 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.)
This isn’t an emotionally affecting Cymbeline—and it doesn’t 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 Fiasco’s 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 he’s 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 Fiasco’s Cymbeline evokes a kind of timeless present, the Pearl locates The Misanthrope, under Joseph Hanreddy’s direction, firmly in the 17th century, miring it in hose and lace and a set that cheaply echoes Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors. This very nearly keeps it from resonating with our own age, to which it is extremely relevant. But Molière’s delightful jokes resist suppression, and several of the supporting turns, such as Joey Parsons’s prudish Arsinoe, are delicious. McNall excels throughout, screwing his cherub face into a perpetual scowl, making every line ooze with contempt. You’d have to be a true misanthrope not to adore him.