“Legend has it the word ‘fiasco’ was first used to describe commedia dell’arte performances that went horribly (and hilariously) wrong.” So says the website for Fiasco Theater as it explains the genesis of the company’s name. It’s interesting, though, not only to learn of the term’s history, but also to consider the irony of its being employed to describe the young company for whom everything seems to be going…um, horribly right?
On the basis of a mere five productions over just a few years, the company has achieved glowing reviews and strong buzz. And it has yet to make a misstep. Each production it has rolled out has been greeted warmly. They are batting one thousand.
And they have chosen Washington and the venerable Folger Theatre to premiere their latest production, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. They will follow its run with a shorter run of Cymbeline, the production that put the company on the map. Their run of Cymbeline at Theatre for a New Audience (the buzziest Off-Broadway company focusing on Shakespeare) was followed by a six-month commercial run at Barrow Street Theatre. Since they’ve only done five productions, that gives us the chance to see 40% of their oeuvre. So I guess we’re batting .400.
I spoke with Noah Brody and Jessie Austrian, two of the founders and leaders of the company, who are also two of the actors in the current production and one of its directors (Austrian). Did I mention that the productions are usually co-directed by two of the actors who are also in the play? The Two Gentlemen of Verona is unusual for them in that one of the co-directors (Ben Steinfeld) is not in the cast.
In response to a question about exactly when Fiasco was formed, I learned that “there is internal difference on when it happened.” The founders were all from the first three graduating classes (2005-7) of the Brown/Trinity MFA Program in Acting and Directing at Brown University. Some of them began teaching together around 2006-7; they worked together on the first production using the Fiasco name in 2007-8; they incorporated as a 501(c)3 under the name in 2009 and set up the structure of three co-Artistic Directors plus three Company Members.
That first production was a different iteration of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of Shakespeare’s earliest and less-performed comedies. (Interestingly, the last time Folger did a production of that play, it was also with a small cast. In Aaron Posner’s 2004 production, four actors played the two sets of lovers, while three actors — Kate Eastwood Norris, Holly Twyford, and Lucy Newman-Williams — played everyone else.) That first Fiasco Two Gentlemen of Verona was a much bigger affair, with a cast of fully eight actors. It had a running time of 80 minutes and was performed in a studio in New York City.
What drew them to this play? “The character breakdown,” which allowed them to use four men and four women, each with a “nice, meaty track to work on.” (Brody and Austrian frequently used the word “track” to refer to the path of each actor in these productions that require most of them to play multiple roles.) Austrian added that “Noah had the best dog” and The Two Gentlemen of Verona has a part for a dog. The dog was cast as Crab. Sadly, that actor is not part of the current tour, having shuffled off this mortal coil at the ripe old age of 16, I believe they said. A human, Zachary Fine, is currently doing Crab duties at the Folger.
One of the reasons The Two Gentlemen of Verona isn’t done as much as other comedies in the canon is that the lead behaves badly when he attempts to force himself on the woman he loves just before the play’s happy ending. We talked a little before the controversy surrounding The Game of Thrones flared up, putting dramatic representations of rape under a microscope. However, Austrian and Brody focused on a couple of interesting aspects of that plot twist. First, they stressed the genuine quality of the character’s repentance. “The apology is true, genuine, as opposed to a pro forma apology, a fake, politicized, forced apology,” Brody said. Then they spoke of the opportunity it allows for the other characters to forgive the transgression. “Because Proteus actually feels repentance, what is there to say but to forgive? It becomes easy to forgive.”
The other interesting thing they pointed out regarding the speed with which the characters and plot move on to the happy ending is that it is “in keeping with the rest of the play. The characters are instantly falling in love. That spontaneous, protean nature of passion is at the heart of the play.” So it also makes sense, in that context, that the characters are quick to repent and quick to forgive.
Cymbeline, they said, was chosen in a manner similar to The Two Gentlemen of Verona. “I was dying to play Imogen,” Austrian said. They pointed to other qualities in the play that attracted the troupe. “It’s filled with event, it’s epic in nature, chock full of events. It lends itself to ensemble playing. The doubling allowed strong thematic resonance. The characters are frequently mistaking what they see.” Also, for all of us, on-stage and in the audience, “You never know where you are in your story,” and the play makes that abundantly clear. They pointed to an instance in the play when a character thinks he is on top of the world right before he loses his life and another instance of a character who is in extremis but who ends the play in a much happier place.
I asked if the Cymbeline production is something they have in their back pocket, able to be easily pulled out and done anytime, anywhere, or if they are going to need to re-discover it during rehearsals. “It’s been two years since we did it last. The other night, we ran lines on the spur of the moment. That experience was hilarious and humbling.” Both laughed at the memory before adding something fascinating. It is amazing “how strongly imprinted the performances” of the other actors are on the two. As a result, both said they remember other lines better than their own. That said, and the challenge of “incorporating the columns” at the Folger into the staging aside, they pointed out that they’ve done Cymbeline four times and each time it’s been “better, richer, easier in the positive sense, more fully embodied. We hear new things.”
We talked about the experience of directing a play while also acting in it; in fact, co-directing a play with another actor. They both spoke of challenges and rewards, and more than once used the word “generosity” in describing the attitude of the other actors as the key to the success of the model. “It’s really, really hard to negotiate. It’s challenging, but also enriching. It can be hard to give feedback and hard to hear it. When not to say something can be as important as when to say it.
“Ultimately, though, the ensemble feels much more ownership. The director leads a conversation and makes conceptual decisions, but we make the play as an ensemble.” Austrian noted that, although a director standing out front and separate from the cast is the norm now, in the scope of theatre history, it’s a fairly new model. And a great advantage for Fiasco is that, after opening, “the director doesn’t go away.” Brody added about the current production that “it’s a good thing that Jessie is inside it and staying with it.”
In between Cymbeline and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the company ventured away from the Bard and took a similar approach (minimal design, small cast) to something completely different. They tackled a work about giants, among other things, by the giant of contemporary American musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim. Their production of Into the Woods got great reviews at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, and they will take it next to the Old Globe in San Diego before a run Off-Broadway under the auspices of New York’s Roundabout Theater Company. They told me that Sondheim and co-writer James Lapine have seen the production and are “strong supporters” of the Fiasco take on it.
What else is ahead for Fiasco? Beyond the upcoming runs of Into the Woods, they had no definite plans that they could share, but spoke about wanting to do another Shakespeare production in the 2015-16 season, their desire to create an original piece as an ensemble, and the prospect of adapting literature, perhaps an American classic, to the stage. “We’ll always do Shakespeare, but we won’t only do Shakespeare,” Brody said, after which Austrian added that it would be fun to do a play that involved “couches and sinks.”
The search for the next challenge will involve “finding what we’re passionate about doing and what lends itself” to the Fiasco approach, which, they stressed, is “what’s the best way to tell this story.” Which means that, if and when they tackle a play that’s an American classic, they may not approach it the way they have Shakespeare and (now) Sondheim. “There’s not a set of rules that we would apply to any play. We will listen to each play and perhaps create a new set of aesthetic criteria.” In some cases, it could be decided not to do the casting of actors in multiple roles, a practice for which they have become known.
On the “devised piece” front, they have recently been through a two-week lab at Sundance Institute, during which they explored “tiny, inchoate seeds of ideas and began to investigate ways to work” toward the creation of something new. They took as a starting point folk tales, although they told me that the composer Michael John LaChiusa pronounced their themes more narrowly as “night and losers who win.” (The piece will include original music, which I guess is why LaChuisa was involved with them during that lab experience.)
Another group getting buzz around the country is Bedlam Theatre, which brought its four-actor rep of Hamlet and Saint Joan to Olney Theatre Center before an acclaimed run in New York. Not that two companies doing small-cast classics define a trend, but what about this coincidence? The two called Fiasco “the inheritors of a tradition, Fiasco didn’t invent it.” After stressing that “Bedlam and Fiasco do different things,” they allowed as how they hope they are “part of a trend that puts the text front and center, that takes an ensemble approach,” that requires an actor involved to be “a total theatre artist” who is involved in the “total responsibility of the production. If things are moving in that direction, we are thrilled.” They also pointed out that Fiasco and Bedlam both have connections to Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company and that both were deeply influenced by Adrian Hall, the long-time Artistic Director of Trinity Rep.
THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA
Closes May 25, 2014
from May 28 – June 1
Fiasco Theater at
201 East Capitol Street, SE
2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $72
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Back to the name Fiasco. I ended by asking for a memorable incident when a performance went horribly wrong, and Brody accommodated by telling me of an entrance he made as Posthumus in Cymbeline. He is supposed to say, “I am Posthumus, that killed thy daughter,” referring to Imogen, Posthumus’ wife. Instead, he entered and proclaimed, “I am Imogen!” After Brody pronounced this his “greatest destruction of a line,” Austrian spoke of how “regularly, a moment that is not quite right can open the door to a better show — if you acknowledge it and use it as a springboard to a better scene, if you risk flopping at something.” Brody concurred, adding that they have “no assumptions about what theatre is supposed to be other than actors and an audience living in a room and breathing the same air.”