Before I sat down to talk to Jessie Austrian about her role as Imogen, Cymbeline’s brave and rebellious princess, I had the privilege of watching her and the rest of Fiasco Theater’s company as they rehearsed the show. The round platform and magical trunk that constitute the play’s entire set had arrived in the rehearsal studio the previous day, and some of the actors were wearing their characters’ shoes with their street clothes—signs that opening night was looming palpably near. There was a brilliant energy in the room. The excitement and joy the actors were feeling was obvious in all their movements and speech, and I was rapt as they bounced ideas off each other. They broke off after each speech to analyze their lines—some of which they’d spoken dozens if not hundreds of times before, since this production of Cymbeline is Fiasco’s second—in meticulous detail. “I don’t know what I’m saying here,” was a popular confession, and when someone said this, everyone else would help him tease out all the line’s potential meanings. I’d never experienced anything like the sense of trust and open communication in Fiasco’s process before. It was like a writing workshop, kind of, except no one was competing or trying to undermine each other or impress the professor.
The sense that each part of Fiasco depends on the whole, and vice versa, is more than appropriate to Cymbeline. As Jessie pointed out in our interview, this play—maybe more than any other of Shakespeare’s—is about how terrible circumstances are often revealed by time to have been fortuitous, though they might have seemed like insurmountable tragedy at the moment of their occurrence. In other words, the huge problems that Cymbeline’s characters confront all turn out to be necessary in order to reveal the characters’ best qualities, which is what eventually makes their problems solvable.
The sense of one’s own life as a narrative with unpredictable twists and turns can sometimes be the only thing, in a dark hour, that gives us the strength to go on.
Certainly, it is what saves Imogen. Imagine thinking that the person you love most in the world has not only falsely believed you to have betrayed him, but has given orders to have you killed! Confronting this problem, it’s true, there’s a moment when Imogen begs her husband’s servant Pisanio to kill her. But as Jessie plays this scene, we see this as another display of Imogen’s innate strength. Maybe it’s her brave willingness to die that convinces Pisanio that she’s got the inner resources to masquerade as a boy, which is ultimately what enables her to prove herself to have been true to Posthumus. And without this decision to travel dressed as a man, Imogen would never have been reunited with her long-lost brothers. The micro-decisions that Jessie makes in this scene lend the play’s far-fetched plot twists emotional resonance that transcends the layers of obvious artifice implicit in any production of this play, and especially this one.
The decision to deal with Cymbeline’s twistiness, which borders on the ridiculous, by embracing that ridiculousness and displaying it with a wink, is a risky choice, for no actor in this production more than Jessie. Everyone else can get away, to some extent, with winking at the audience. Jessie must be the earnest cog around which the many outlandish plotlines spin, and she handles this responsibility deftly. Her Imogen is credulous but never naïve, besotted with love but not so much so that it clouds her judgment. The audience trusts her; we sense that she believes everything will come out right in the end, as improbable as that seems. In the center of a whirl of tricks, war, confusion, music, and identities concealed and revealed, Jessie, as Imogen, is rock-solid and real.