Shakespeare throws caution to the wind in "Cymbeline," a late romance so fantastically convoluted that the characters themselves can't help expressing disbelief at what occurs. The plot, a stuffed sausage of Shakespearean story lines, positively defies summary.
Contemporary directors of an adventurous bent have been drawn to Shakespeare's self-parodying frolic, in which anything can happen and just about does. The dead rise, a head gets lopped off, a father and his children are miraculously reunited and lovers overcome the terrible obstacles thrust in their way, to make the "gift/ the more delayed, delighted."
One production I saw transplanted "Cymbeline" to the wild West; another staged it inside a magical diorama. Fiasco Theater's revival of "Cymbeline," well received when it played off-Broadway and now at the Broad Stage through Dec. 23, relishes the play's storytelling delirium.
Performed by a compact cast of six, the production — conceived by three of the performers: Jessie Austrian, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld — brought to mind the touring "Hamlet" from Shakespeare's Globe that was recently at the Broad. Both offerings employ small, versatile ensembles, in which the actors hotfoot from one role to the next in a celebration of the art of theater-making.
The cockeyed ancient Britain fantasy world of "Cymbeline" is more susceptible to the let's-put-on-a-show high jinks than dank, dark Denmark, where the tragic stakes are absurdly high. But audiences have to be willing to go along for the ride, and the cyclonic nature of this tale should carry a whiplash warning for theatergoers.
Personally, I like my Shakespeare productions richly inhabited by actors who can turn poetic language into psychological lightning bolts. Depth is preferable to spryness. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but they don't coincide as often as one would like. Insouciance occasionally gives way to gravity in this "Cymbeline," but it's hard to invest in a story that wears its implausibility on its sleeve.
The finest moments of the production, directed by Brody and Steinfeld, are when Steinfeld takes command of the stage. Among his multiple roles, he plays the villainous Iachimo, who wages a bet with the banished Posthumus (Brody) over the virtue of Posthumus' wife, Imogen (Austrian), daughter of King Cymbeline (Andy Grotelueschen).
Before Iachimo sneaks into Imogen's bedchamber to gather false evidence of her infidelity, he says in an aside, "Boldness be my friend/ Arm me, audacity, from head to foot …" — words that sum up the spirit of Shakespeare's undertaking. The melodrama is perpetually daring itself to new debauched heights, and Steinfeld has a way of cajoling us along with a conspiratorial wink and seductive smile.
Austrian balances Imogen's pertness and delicacy effectively enough, though I wish Brody's Posthumus would have strained less for emotional emphasis. In general, the cast, which also includes Paul L. Coffey and Emily Young, aims for frolicsome extravagance in a play in which the good are very good and the bad are awful.
The staging is appropriately spare but makes full use of its scenic elements, including a trunk large enough to hold a headless body. Suffice it to say that the gaily handled decapitation business becomes one of the production's funnier gags.
Fiasco seems determined to draw us into the fabulist fun, but the theatrical horseplay muddles the storytelling at times. Near the end, as Shakespeare shamelessly sorts out his tangle of plots, the confusion is compounded by the way the performers keep switching between roles. Maybe the program ought to have included a flow chart?
Fortunately, there's the music of Shakespeare's language to fall back on. "The crickets sing, and man's o'erlabor'd sense/ Repairs itself by rest" has to be one of the most exquisite descriptions of sleep ever written. And then, of course, the play includes what is considered the finest song in all of Shakespeare, the one that darkly begins "Fear no more the heat o' th' sun."
"Cymbeline" has no business being on anyone's top 10 Shakespeare list, but it has its glories — most of them outlandish, though a few that are breathtakingly refined. Fiasco's revival gives us a fair glimpse of both.
Where: The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: Contact theater for schedule. Ends Dec. 23.
Contact: (310) 434-3200 or http://www.thebroadstage.com
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes