The Napa Register’s Sasha Paulsen writes about the NapaShakes presentation of Fiasco Theater’s Cymbeline to reopen the Napa Valley Opera House, including interviews with co-director and cast member Ben Seinfeld on the inspiration behind Fiasco’s acclaimed production, NapaShakes dramaturg Philippa Kelly on the resonance of the story with modern political times, and with Artistic Director Laura Rafaty on the selection of Fiasco to highlight NapaShakes’ Shakespeare400 celebration.
NapaShakes joins the global celebration of William Shakespeare in 2016 by presenting the Fiasco Theater Company of New York in an exclusive West Coast engagement of its critically acclaimed production of “Cymbeline” for three performances on April 22-23 at the Napa Valley Opera House.
A sold-out smash hit in New York, Fiasco’s inventive, music-filled production was called by New York Times critic Ben Brantley “the most truly enchanting ‘Cymbeline’ I’ve seen. Exquisite.”
Fiasco’s production was listed as one of its choices for the year’s Top Ten Productions by New York Magazine, which reported, “The Fiasco Company brings joyful music, playful inventiveness and just an air-kiss of irony to Shakespeare’s mock-epic. They remind us what theater, at its simplest and most powerful, is really for: the alchemical thrill of watching an entire work conjured into being out of sheer wit and will. A small masterpiece.” The New Yorker called it “a playful and inspired work of art.”
Set in ancient Britain during the Roman invasion, “Cymbeline” tells of a beautiful princess separated from her beloved. The epic comedic romance includes a cruel stepmother, a credulous husband duped by an adversary, and an exiled nobleman who kidnaps a king’s sons.
According to Fiasco, in their version, “a trunk becomes a ship; a sheet becomes a sail, and poisoning, beheading, cross-dressing, and betrayal become fresh and frisky.” Fiasco’s six-person ensemble resolves the twisted fates of 14 characters at lightning-speed.
“We chose ‘Cymbeline’ primarily for the acting challenges and secondarily, because of its wild story,” said Ben Steinfeld, who acts in”Cymbeline” and is also an actor and co-director with Noah Brody. “We were interested in trying to solve all the challenges that Shakespeare puts out there in the play. We have all kinds of crazy stuff: battle scenes, headless body, there’s poison, disguise, evil; there are characters that are old, there are wonderful villains, plus heroic and romantic stuff. We were intrigued by the adventures inside of the story. It reminded us of things like ‘The Princes Bride,’ or Harry Potter, where the plot and the actions have a sweeping scope. We like that.”
“This show is also very funny and it’s got a huge amount of comedy,” he added. “I think people are pleasantly surprised by the ability to understand Shakespeare’s sense of humor. We wanted this to be a memorable production of ‘Cymbeline,’ which is a play that isn’t produced as often as some others.”
Fiasco’s production is infused with original music. Shakespeare’s lyrics have been set to original compositions and traditional sources that range from Renaissance madrigals to bluegrass and Appalachian folk tunes.
“I think that people will remember the music,” Steinfeld said, adding that the battle scenes and fight sequences are also memorable.
He believes that New York audiences have responded “to what the play has to say about our inability to know exactly where we are in our own life’s journeys. Sometimes the struggle, pain, suffering and grief are actually necessary for us to be able to receive the joy that comes afterwards. And that’s what Shakespeare is really trying to say with ‘Cymbeline’: Sometimes (for) the people most tested in life, as we say at the end of the play, ‘it makes their gifts more delayed, delighted.’ I hope that the audience will be moved by how complete the play is in terms of its generosity toward the possibility of redemption.”
Dr. Philippa Kelly, NapaShakes dramaturg, noted, “Cymbeline is a play that resonates with modern audiences who are frustrated with their government and with the pressures of urban life, and who reject the idea of an inherited ruling class.
“The royal court as the seat of moral authority had been extensively questioned in the century before Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ hit the boards,” she said. “King Cymbeline, shortsighted, none too clever, and married to an evil woman, symbolizes the breakdown of royal authority and the corruption that can breed around it.”
The Opera House reopens
“Cymbeline” will be the first production in the Napa Valley Opera House since it closed, as City Winery, on Dec. 31, 2015. “We are so excited to reopen the Napa Valley Opera House as a venue for live theater, with reserved theater-style seating for audiences — no more tables or hard chairs,” said Laura Rafaty, the producer and artistic director for NapaShakes. “The Opera House board and team have been incredibly generous and welcoming, and it is thrilling, if a bit challenging, to be the first show in the space for the post-City Winery era. I’ve been working closely with the new Blue Note team, and they are really experienced producers who know their stuff.”
Cities and companies around the world are celebrating Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago, on April 23, 1616. April 23 is also listed as Shakespeare’s birthday but, Rafaty noted, “His birth date is a bit in doubt, as is so much about William Shakespeare the man.”
For the NapaShakes celebration, Rafaty said, “I wanted to invite a special troupe to perform at the Opera House. And given that we had presented the very British Globe Theater from London twice within 12 months, I thought it would be exciting to invite an American troupe to perform. There is no question that New York’s Fiasco Theater is the hottest troupe of Shakespeareans working in the USA today. And obviously the Brits agree, as they’ve invited Fiasco Theater to bring their brand of Shakespeare to London next season.
“Their extraordinary production of ‘Cymbeline’ will to launch the first of what we hope will be many NapaShakes performances at the Napa Valley Opera House,” she said. “The historic and treasured Napa Valley Opera House will provide the perfect venue for audiences to see and hear these talented Americans perform ‘Cymbeline,’ and to join the global celebration of history’s greatest dramatist: William Shakespeare, whose work is as popular and influential today as it was 400 years ago. As Ben Johnson famously wrote about the Bard: ‘He was not of an age, but for all time.’”
“Cymbeline will be performed on April 22 at 7:30 p.m and on April 23 at 2 and 7 p.m. All seats are $65 general, and $45 for 16 and under. There is an advisory for mild stage violence and brief nudity. Tickets for the cast party following the final performance are $25 and benefit NapaShakes. For information and tickets, visit https://www.napashakes.org/tickets