Fiasco Theater’s rollicking trunk show Cymbeline — returning to Off Broadway for a second time this year after a sold-out two-week run in January — comes off like an episode of MTV Shakespeare Unplugged. With only six actors (to cover 15 characters), a handful of acoustic instruments, and an entire set that fits neatly into a magician’s box, it’s as whittled-down a production of the Bard as is likely possible to achieve. But this isn’t the drab minimalism that has actors delivering mopey soliloquies on bare stages painted in lifeless grays and lichenous greens, perhaps sidestepping some awkwardly rhomboid ”furniture.” No, this show is full of life and movement and humor and bluegrass.
”Wait,” you say, cupping your ear. ”Bluegrass?” Indeed. And if you thought that Shakespeare and full-on foot-stomping, washboard-scratching bluegrass would go together about as well as peanut butter and motor oil, you’re wrong. All of the actors are also musicians, and a series of harmonized a cappella hymnals and hoedowns punctuates the play’s breast-clutching declarations of love and winking asides, melding in with surprising ease and very little affectation.
The troupe has also unburdened the play itself of extraneous elements. Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s neither-fish-nor-fowl romances, is not traditionally considered one of his best works. The story — about a princess (Jessie Austrian) whose base-born love (Noah Brody) is exiled and then decides to test her devotion — quickly gets entangled in a number of digressive subplots and a large cast of characters, not all entirely memorable.
Here, the narrative has been streamlined, and there’s little confusion about who is who despite the fact that the actors often play multiple characters. The true testament to the performance is in the finale, a sitcommy succession of revealed identities and resolved misunderstandings that requires nearly everyone to be on stage at once and switching between roles, all while making sure the audience is clued in on what’s happening. It’s pulled off with deceptive ease, but even then the biggest laugh of the night comes when Andy Grotelueschen, as the exasperated title character, looks out to the audience and demands, ”Are there more plots to unravel?” There aren’t, but I’m sure it would be a joy to watch if there were. A-
(Tickets: www.smarttix.com or 212-868-4444)