“Boldness Be My Friend”: An Essay on Cymbeline by members of New York’s Fiasco Theater

An essay from the book “Living With Shakespeare,” entitled “Boldness Be My Friend,” written by Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody, and Ben Steinfeld of New York’s Fiasco Theater

Fiasco Theater’s “Cymbeline” directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld at The Barrow Street Theatre. Pictured (L to R) are Ben Steinfeld, Jessie Austrian, Andy Grotelueschen, Paul L. Coffey, Emily Young and Noah Brody. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

Cymbeline is often thought of as a problematic play. Or a bad play. Or a just plain silly piece of theatrical meringue. It shifts rapidly between tragic and comedic tones; the plot is epic and involved, convoluted and often ridiculous. And when it came time for us, as the new Fiasco Theater company, to produce what was our first full production we chose Cymbeline. (Footnote:  We went all in on Cymbeline, committing the totality of our resources, $18,000, rehearsing nights and weekends for a total of sixty hours. That’s about one and a half weeks of rehearsal on a standard contract.)  Why? Well, in addition to its complexities, Cymbeline offers the chance to take on an utterly transporting text, sing a song, dance a jig, have a sword fight, play lovers, villains, and fools, and have another sword fight, all before the intermission. Then, of course, we love Shakespeare for expressing the fullness of humanity through language and for the fullness of experience an actor gets linguistically, physically, musically, and emotionally when playing his characters. Cymbeline had roles we wanted to play, wonderful and daunting language, and a seemingly impossible challenge of making it all hang together. Yet we weren’t scared of producing it, because we were sure that no one was going to see it anyway. After all, we had never done a full production and few people knew us. We figured that, at best, we might convince two hundred people to come over the course of eleven performances.

We were, very happily, quite wrong about that. To date, Cymbeline has gone on to be presented four more times, running for over two hundred performances to thousands of audience members, including 159 continuous performances Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre – the first time Shakespeare has run commercially Off-Broadway in over twenty years.

So what made Fiasco’s production of the play such an improbable success? Here’s our attempt at an answer.

Cymbeline’s plot is so full that its summary is nearly as long as the play itself. In Augustan England, the princess Imogen has married beneath her. Alone after the banishment of her husband, Imogen is beset by the angered King, her wicked stepmother, and the stepmother’s dolt of a son, as well as a blackguard of a Roman who has bet his fortune against her fidelity. Escaping to rugged Wales dressed as a boy, Imogen meets a group of rustics whose fates are locked with hers. All the while, a Roman invasion draws near. She takes a healing draught that temporarily poisons her while her tormentor is beheaded by her long-lost brother. Her husband is captured by the invading Roman forces shortly before their own defeat and, in his slumbers, is visited in turn by the ghosts of his ancestors and by Jupiter from on high. The final scene of the play uncoils a host of character and plot revelations wound by the first four acts and usually demands a cast numerous enough to populate a Cecil B. DeMille epic.

The play is categorized as a ‘romance.’ If you had asked us to define that genre prior to our work on Cymbeline, we probably would have waived our arms in the air and said something like, ‘Romances are those late plays that scholars can’t nearly define as comedy, tragedy, or history.’ But we learned that the plot-driven, epic nature of Cymbeline was hewing precisely to the form of romance, replete with wicked stepmothers, mistaken identities, and poisonous potions. Examples of the romance abound: Don Quixote and Le Morte d’Arthur in Shakespeare’s time, Harry PotterThe Princess BrideRaiders of the Lost Ark, and The Lord of the Rings in our own. In Cymbeline, as in all of those stories, wild action and broad characters rule the form. When we looked at the play through this lens, it was clear that there was no ‘problem’ to solve. We don’t think of the above titles as ‘problem’ stories; we take joy in the sweeping, sometimes ridiculous plot elements and action-driven nature of these adventure tales.

So we decided to trust that old Will knew what he was doing and hoped that if we stayed true to the tone and rhythms he had written in each scene, and in each moment of each scene, we could put comedy right next to tragedy, and prop two-dimensional stock characters next to deeply introspective and multidimensional ones, as he had written, and that they would work, eclectically, to create a whole which was more than the sum of its parts. It’s also a philosophy of acting that, incidentally, reflects the motley assembly of types and temperaments that make up our company.

As with all of Shakespeare’s plays, there are many different themes at work in Cymbeline. But the ones we latched onto at the beginning were the ideas of belief and illusion: over and over in Cymbeline things are not what they seem to be. The characters all believethings to be true based on seemingly irrefutable evidence that is actually false (e.g., Cloten’s dead boy that seems to be Posthumus’s, a girl who seems to be a boy, the Doctor giving the Queen what seems like deadly poison but is actually not). True seems to be false, and vice versa. And so the characters believe they are at rock bottom when, in actuality, the tragic events they suffer are the pivot points on which their ultimate triumphs necessarily turn. Posthumus’s banishment and his belief that Imogen is false are required to set in motion the plot that will restore a fractured court to order and, in turn, allow Posthumus and Imogen to be reconciled. But, of course, none of the characters can know this in any given moment. Nor do many of us recognize it in our own lives; it is only at the end of a journey that we can clearly see where we were in the middle of it. We lack perspective on the ground – as Belarius says, ‘Consider,/When you above perceive me like a crow,/That it is place which lessens and sets off’ (3.3.13-15). We can never know where we are in our own story.

Okay, so ‘things aren’t what they seem to be’ is essential to both plot and theme? Eureka! We’ve got a production aesthetic engendered by the play. It was these two driving ideas – honoring the wild form of the romance, and the thematic content of illusion and belief – that guided our approach to cutting and adapting the script, and to creating a physical and musical life for the show.

At the outset of any Fiasco production we ask ourselves: ‘What do we absolutely have to have to tell the story’ This is a question which proves very effective for focusing a production, and very prudent when you’ve little more than pocket change and the goodwill of others to create it. How that question is answered will define most of the production’s textual, casting, design, physical, and musical parameters.

Ben Steinfeld and Jessie Austrian in the Fiasco Theater’s production of “Cymbeline.” Photo by Ari Mintz

When we asked that primary question of Cymbeline, we kept coming back to one answer: a trunk. And that’s really about it. ‘Send your trunk to me, it shall safe be kept.’ (1.6.238), says Imogen to the scheming Iachimo, who plans to hide inside the trunk himself and so gain access to her bedchamber. We then asked ourselves what would happen if we onlyhad a trunk. And what if that trunk had some surprise elements and could seemingly become other things? Could the audience have a parallel experience to the characters’ in which they believe they are seeing one thing but it turns out to be something else? We conceived of a fabulous, deceptive, ‘magic’ trunk that became Imogen’s bed, but also contained a secret panel that allowed Iachimo to emerge from its side. It was passage into the cave home of Belaria (Belarius in Shakespeare’s text), Guiderius, and Arviragus. It became a throne, a billiard table, and the ship carrying Posthumus to Italy. Arrows shot through its top during the war between Britain and Rome. The world of our production metaphorically (and often literally) revolved around that trunk. Moreover, its rough magic and surprising qualities complemented the tone and content of what is at times a preposterous and crazed play.

Our ‘magic’ trunk also allowed us to bring one of the most notorious events in Cymbelinefrom off stage to on stage: the decapitation of Cloten. In some of the plays, all of the action of a fight takes place on stage, as with Mercutio and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. ‘Exeunt, fighting,’ however, often signals that one of the characters is about to get skewered or decapitated off stage. This is what Shakespeare does in Act 4, Scene 2 of Cymbeline when Guiderius and Cloten exit fighting, and Guiderius reenters holding Cloten’s severed head. Soon after, the headless body is brought on for burial. Knowing that we weren’t going to be able to credibly produce either a headless body or a disembodied head, we simply asked: What if we made this entire event happen on stage? Decapitation – on stage. Headless body – on stage.

In essence, we designed one of the side panels of our trunk to be made of foam with a slit down it, but to be indistinguishable from the rest of its wood-and-steel construction. During the fight between Cloten and Guiderius, the trunk, which had previously served as the gateway into the cave home of Guiderius, was ‘discovered’ by Cloten as a possible escape route. Facing upstage, the trunk and its open lid provided just enough cover to mask the blow that severs Cloten’s head. At that moment the actor playing Cloten would collapse into the trunk. As his neck slid down through the foam slit his severed head appeared to be falling to the ground outside of the trunk. Voila! Decapitation. A few lines later Guiderius says he’ll toss the head into the stream behind their cave, at which point the actor kicked Cloten’s severed head back into the trunk. Voila! Disappearing head. The boys then discover the supposedly dead body of their new friend Fidele (who is really Imogen cross-dressed as a boy), drag it on stage, sing a beautiful eulogy, and decide to ‘lay him down.’ Now, the audience knows that Imogen/Fidele has in fact taken a position that will only make her/him seem dead temporarily. They’ve also just finished howling in laughter at the world’s stupidest magic trick in the form of our decapitation. Yet without fail they would sit rapt and deeply moved by the sorrow expressed in the funeral song, Shakespeare’s magnificent lament for the dead, ‘Fear no more the heat o’th’sun…” (4.2.323-346). (Footnote:  We chose to set the song to the tune of the traditional dirge ‘Long Time Traveler.’ As we had already established the Appalachian musical world of the rustics, the bleak and haunting sound of ‘Long Time Traveler’ proved a perfect complement to the pastorally stark imagery of the ‘Fear no more’ lyrics.)  Despite the fact that the audience knew Imogen wasn’t really dead, (Footnote: This is the power of art, that we can feel deeply for something without actually ‘believing’ it is real.) the song always created a moment of deep pathos. Everytime the song concluded, there was a holy silence in the theater (broken only by an occasional sniffle.) This tension was then released comically when, in the next moment, the actors would drag the body toward the trunk and open the lid in time for Belaria to exclaim, ‘Great Gods! Cloten is quite forgot!…Come, let us bury him’ (adapted from 4.2.304-305). They would then drag Cloten’s body outside the trunk while leaving his head inside the trunk. Voila! Headless body.

Neither the moment of decapitation nor the reveal of the headless body ever failed to meet with huge peals of laughter and appreciation from our audience. We hadn’t succeeded in providing a realistic decapitation; but that wasn’t possible. Shakespeare knew that. What we had managed was a way to keep a huge and otherwise offstage event before the audience, and to do it in a way so that their reaction to it was both thematically resonant and consonant with the production’s aesthetic.

It struck us, night after night, how the audience responded to the events in this sequence. One could scarcely imagine an eight-minute piece of theater with more wild mood shifts than this scene, yet the audience transition through each of them effortlessly and completely; they were willing and able to laugh and cry with us and laugh with us again. It was an object lesson to us of the value of maintaining the peaks and valleys of Shakespeare’s writing, the dramatic topography that is so often flattened by a production’s desire for tonal consistency.

Once we decided we only needed a trunk, the next questions was: How many actors do we need? Let’s see…there are about twenty named roles and thirty-five or forty characters, so…six. Six actors (four men and two women) are needed in order to play every scene without having to switch roles internally. Until you reach the final scene. Then you’re screwed. But we figured we’d solve that in rehearsal.

But why do Cymbeline with only six actors? The saying goes, ‘There are no small roles, only small actors’ That may be true, but there sure seem to be a lot of roles that demand spending most of the show backstage filling in crossword puzzles. We’re a company of actors. We love to act. Shakespeare was an actor too; he understood how thrilling it is to say this shit out loud. So it was important to us that each member of the ensemble have a good amount to work on, which would mean doubling up many of the roles in the play. This also nicely mirrored and resonated with the play’s themes of mistaken identity and illusion. (Footnote: We ended up with some happy resonances in the doubling; we changed the character Belarius to a woman (Belaria) and thus got to see the same actress embody the wicked stepmother, as the Queen, and the loving, philosophical mother trying to keep her boys from experiencing pain in the world, as Belaria; the actor who played Pisanio and took a verbal (and sometimes physical beating) from Cloten in the first three acts also played Guiderius, who gets to cut off Cloten’s head in Act 4.) The magic of theater is in asking the audience to believe we are someone else, to become transformed and transported with us; we wanted to celebrate this and so never sought to hide the actors or their transformations. When the actors weren’t acting in a scene they would sit upstage of the action in full view of the audience and watch the play (Basically: I’m sitting on this bench, so I’m the actor; I stand up, step forward, now I’m the character.) This allowed us to flow in and out of the action fairly seamlessly and to contribute musically even when we weren’t acting, so all six of us were always responsible for the entire play regardless of who happened to be in each scene. It also told the audience that the magic of our production wasn’t based upon realistic set pieces or fancy spectacle: the magic lay in conjuring Shakespeare’s story practically out of thin air.



As we’ve already mentioned, we love to act. It also turns out that all six of love to make music. So we asked ourselves how we could use our vocal and instrumental skills to make the music in the show as surprising, satisfying, and versatile as the trunk. Cymbeline has a few songs in it that we needed to set, but we also wanted to use additional music to create atmosphere and place, to help with the storytelling, and to expand the emotional scope of important moments in the story.

Early in our process we happily decided that since Shakespeare makes the rustic family in Wales a musical one, we would follow through on that by making them a sort of family band in the American folk and bluegrass tradition. This allowed us to show that Belaria, Guiderius, and Arvigarus are a genuinely loving family, and that they express their love through making music together. (Footnote: Not only did this present a huge contrast to the broken family dynamics of Cymbeline’s court, but it also created a way for the rustics to welcome Imogen when they find her in the cave dressed as Fidele – they can teach her/him to sing.) We introduced the audience to Belaria and her boys at the top of our second act by having them sing the Carter Stanley tune ‘Think of What You’ve Done.’ Despite the jaunty tempo and exuberant feel of the song, the content is about a lover’s betrayal, and specifically a lover asking if what he believes is true. Thus we got to experience the rustics as a joyous, music-making family while simultaneously echoing the play’s thematic content.

Because the genre of romance is purposely eclectic, we felt we had license to use varied genres of music, and delighted in singing bluegrass in the same production in which we sang Italian madrigals and folk tunes. We even began the production with an old sea-shanty with rewritten lyrics to ask the audience to turn off their cell phones. From the first moment of the production we were acknowledging that the actors and audience could experience the live music in the same way, as opposed to in a movie, where underscoring is meant for the audience, but the actors in the movie don’t hear it. In our production, the actors and audience are in the same room together, bringing the world of the play to life through shared imagination.

Before rehearsal began the three of us set out to cut and adapt the script for six actors. We left much of Acts 1 through 4 largely uncut, particularly the longer two-person scenes as well as the monologues and soliloquies – they are so deft and so well-structured that for us to ‘help’ the text would be to risk hubris. The major adaptations we made were in combining multiple characters and in reassigning text from one character to another. For example, in Cloten’s first two scenes he is accompanied by two Lords, one a sycophant, and one who reports on Cloten’s foolishness in asides to the audience. We decided to combine these two Lords into one voice, and to make it that of Pisanio. This meant the audience could spend a little more time with Pisanio, and could see how his job as a servant meant bearing the brunt of Cloten’s brutishness. Thus, by the time we got to Cloten’s actual scene with Pisanio in Act 3, when he threatens him and extorts information about Imogen’s flight, the audience understood their relationship and its arc. We also adapted the play’s opening expository scene between two unnamed Lords into a prologue spoken directly to the audience. This allowed us to give the audience the information they needed to follow the story, but also gave us a chance to establish how we would be including and engaging them in the performance throughout the evening.

We cut the text with a scalpel for Acts 1 through 4, but in Shakespeare’s Act 5, we used an axe, cutting whole scenes and characters (deploying hubris now). The major sequence that we cut in Act 5 follows the capture of Posthumus. He falls asleep and is surrounded by the ghosts of his ancestors, who implore Jupiter to explain why he has brought so much sorrow upon Posthumus; then Jupiter descends from above on a golden eagle (Footnote:  Cymbeline was one of the late plays written to be performed in Blackfriars, an indoor space with a winch system, giving Will the ability to fly things in.  Who doesn’t love a new toy?) and tells the ancestors to pipe down and quit worrying, and that the gods have got everything under control, thank you very much.

Because we were less interested in the thematic content of the gods and our noble ancestors guiding our fate, and because we wanted to highlight the theme of lacking perspective within one’s own story, we decided to cut this event. We felt secure in doing this because the events of the jail and Jupiter are not actually required to move the plot forward toward resolution. (Footnote: We took some of Jupiter’s language that was thematically resonant and used it at the end of the play as a sort of epilogue, delivered by the actor who played Cymbeline: ‘Be not with mortal accidents oppressed,/No care of oursit is, it is the Gods’./Whom best they love, they cross, to make their gift/The more delayed, delighted.’ (italicized changes ours; adapted from 5.3.202-205)

One of the reasons Cymbeline is notoriously difficult to pull off is the number of events and revelations that occur in its final scene. It is five hundred lines of revelation upon revelation – seventeen revelations, in fact – in which each character recapitulates his entire story.  [MY NOTE:  See Tanner from an earlier post on the glory of this scene.]  At first glance we thought it all seemed superfluous because the audience already knows the information that is revealed. What was Shakespeare after? Perhaps Will had set himself a challenge within the genre of romance: How many plot threads could he spin throughout the play and then neatly tie together in one final scene at the last possible moment? The production had set itself a similar challenge: How can multiple characters be on stage for all these revelations with only six actors to play them? Thus the audience had the experience of watching so many plot pieces be spun into existence and wondering how they could come together, while simultaneously wondering how the hell these six actors could ever pull it off. In other words, the story and the production were reaching their climax at the same time – form and content working hand in hand.

We signified each change of character with one loud drumbeat, while the actor who was changing roles moved or shifted physically to become another person. While earlier in the play we had avoided switching roles within scenes, here it worked beautifully because it turned out the content of this scene was about that: the scene is about revelations of identity and information, and the event of the scene is watching Cymbeline receive all of this information and put it together. We made internal cuts so that each recapitulation wasn’t quite so long, and reassigned a bit of language (so that the actor playing the Doctor and Cymbeline didn’t have to talk to himself, for example), but otherwise we just did the scene using the simple convention of a drumbeat to signify that someone was becoming a different character. We solved the problem of How do you pull off a series of seventeen revelations in a row? by embracing the problem as the solution: Let’s attempt to make seventeen revelations in a row happen with only six people. We discovered to our amazement that there was no solution necessary; the thing that seemed like a problem with the scene actually turnout to be its intent, and what the audience didn’t even realize they were waiting for. In performance the response to the final scene was often uproarious laughter of appreciation for the feat.

Perhaps our production was successful precisely because we didn’t attempt to ‘solve’ this ‘problematic’ play. Maybe productions of this play go wrong when one tries to even out its tone, or make it into just one thing. Perhaps trusting that Shakespeare was consciously putting eclectic elements next to each other and delighting in their juxtaposition, consciously setting a challenge and attempting to meet it, is more effective. We continually asked ourselves what Shakespeare was trying to do and how we could make it happen in ways that would galvanize our audience and ourselves. While many who saw the show thought the specific answers and choices we came up with seemed a perfect fit for Cymbeline, we have found that it is asking the right questions the matters most.

And we further believe that it is only in risking a fiasco – as Shakespeare himself did in writing Cymbeline – that one takes the leaps that may lead to the creation of something wonderful.”

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