By William Shakespeare

Directed by Julane Havens

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Courtney Doyle, Abby Glass & Jordan Lee
 in Cymbeline. Photo by Harlan Taylor.
Far be it for me to pass judgment on the works of the immortal Bard, but I think we can all agree that there is a varying degree of quality among the plays, and that once you dig past the top tier of Hamlet, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, etc., the rewards of some of the middle range works can seem more difficult to come by. Even a few of plays thought to be lesser works by scholars can afford opportunities for bold and creative staging by directors unafraid to go a little crazy with the greatest playwright of the English language.

For me, Cymbeline is neither the best nor worst of Shakespeare. Originally classified as a tragedy, undoubtedly attributable to a body count that seems rather modest for this author, modern scholars have tended to discuss it as a romance. The story could fit under almost any classification, with an honest king, a duplicitous queen, and young lovers separated by circumstances all following an overly complex plot that seems rather schematic and lifeless, as if Shakespeare was recycling ideas from his previous works. Academics may take exception to this characterization, but it doesn’t seem to amount to anything like the grand payoff of his best work.

Director Julane Havens has mounted a somewhat subversive take on Cymbeline – one that pitches the tale not as tragedy or romance but as outright farce played by characters in a circus. Cymbeline himself (a stalwart and authoritative Jake Nichols) is decked out in a garish red ring-masters outfit, while his scheming queen (the delightful Katie Scott) is depicted as a bearded lady. Her son, Cloten (Courtney Doyle) is a baggy-pants clown, complete with red nose and multi-colored wig, and other characters arrive as acrobats, jugglers and even Siamese twins (Abby Glass and Jordan Lee).

The concept allows for many clever bits of business, such as when Iachimo (a good but not-quite-oily-enough Ethan Corder) sneaks into the bedchamber of the king’s daughter, Innogen (Jessica Nichols), by entering from inside a small steamer trunk, or when Cymbeline knights three men by placing red clown noses on their faces. Even better are the sequences of combat in which inflatable mallets, rubber balls and even a squirting lapel carnation are pulled into service in lieu of swords and knives.

To be honest, the silliness did at times distract from the story, with important revelations about plot and character being missed while some admittedly funny business was being played out on another part of the stage. But perhaps such diversion was entirely consistent with an approach that placed value on turning the whole play on its head and showing, whether altogether intentional or not, a certain amount of disdain for the labyrinthine narrative and unappealing characters. By the time we arrive at the final scenes, wherein everyone still alive stands together while implausible revelations are dropped like water balloons and the various misunderstandings are made clear, it is difficult to care much about these characters’ fates. But the opportunity to squeeze a few more unexpected laughs out of the concept is not squandered and absurdity is allowed glorious reign.

The cast of young students does well across the board, reveling in the unorthodox staging and clearly having a big time along the way. I would be remiss if I did not point out Katie Scott, who was a fine evil queen, but who also stole scenes doing double duty as Philarmonus, the soothsayer, goofily removing the shoes and socks from a corpse (one of the distracting moments but so unforgettable); and Kyra Riley balanced sure-footed comedy with a fealty to the text that helped keep the audience connected to the story.

One performance made an even greater impression. Courtney Doyle played Cloten with such confidence and physical dexterity, in work that fully embraced and realized the circus concept yet also found the integrity of the text in full measure. She clowned like she belonged in Ringling Brothers, moved with a boxer’s footing, and spoke the verse intelligently, encapsulating, in this one performance, the fullest and most detailed realization of the director’s vision.

Costumes by Donna Lawrence-Downs were a colorful and flouncy range of circus outfits that filled the stage with so much pattern and form as to make perfect sense of the spare but effective set design.

May 11, 13, 16, 19 @ 7:30pm
May 20 @ 2pm
Walden Theatre
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 4020o4
Phone:  (502) 589-0084
Fax:  (502) 589-0225