The Georgia Shakespeare Festival's production of the Bard's play "The Tale of Cymbeline" presents any number of interesting challenges for an audience.
First, as it is certainly one of the playwright's lesser known works a plot recapitulation is in order.
Cymbaline (John Ammerman) )is a king of Britain during the period when the Roman Legions had conquered much of Western Europe. He had three children, two boys and a girl.
The sons were snatched while quite young, and Cymbeline and a second wife were left to bring up Imogen (Courtney Patterson). With the best of intentions the king allowed Posthumus (Joe Knezevich), son of a friend, to be raised as Imogen's playmate/companion.
As luck would have it, when they got older Imogen and Posthumus fell in love and were secretly married. This enraged the king not a good idea!
Posthumus was immediately banished but prior to departing he and Imogen swore eternal love.
Whilst biding his time as an expatriate in Rome his loving references to Imogen and his declarations of her enduring fidelity provoked the bounder Iachimo (Brad Sherrill) to wager he can prove Imogen isn't the personification of constancy Posthumus believes her to be. The rat!
Lots of machinations ensue, lots of tears are shed, and Imogen takes off for Rome to figure out just what's going on.
As luck would have it, in the midst of her journey (disguised as a lad it's a Shakespeare thing) she takes refuge in a cave and is befriended by Bellarius (Chris Kayser) and his two sons, hunters all.
Later, when the Romans attack Britain Bellarius and the boys help defend their homeland and Posthumus (remember him?) rises to the occasion as well.
Thereafter these many convoluted plot threads find resolution. All's well that ends well, you might say.
I might add, "The Tale of Cymbaline" is listed amongst Shakespeare's comedies though this production may leave you wondering why. Understanding these plot essentials is only one of the challenges presented by this production.
Because the story lacks familiarity many in the audience will be listening attentively to the characters to get a sense of what is going on. Unfortunately, rather than facilitating the telling of this complicated tale the somewhat avant-garde staging proves a distraction of sorts.
This is not to say the staging is anything less than well-conceived and executed. Conceptually it is very clever. The problem is though Nancy Keystone, the production's visionary scenic designer and director, may be intimately familiar with the story those who are not may find her set unnecessarily diverting.
Part of our consciousness is struggling to absorb an unfamiliar story line and part is attempting to contextualize the imaginative environment within which it unfolds.
This difficulty is manifest in the nature of the acting as well.
When the talented Carolyn Cook, as Cymbaline's queen, begins to speak her delivery reflects the impassioned voice of someone well-embroiled in a personal dramatic experience. Trouble is, we need to understand why she is agitated and not the fact that she is agitated.
Lacking a frame of reference, the best we can do is grab snippets of her articulated consternation. Continuing apace, the rest of the characters fly about as we, the audience, attempt to throw a bridle on this wild mustang.
Exacerbating the problem, the language itself lacks the Bard's mellifluous fluidity; it feels cumbersome and as such is not easily absorbed. It must be said that although any number of Shakespeare's plays are said to be written in conjunction with others ("Pericles" with George Wilkins, "Timon of Athens" with Thomas Middleton, and "Henry VIII" with John Fletcher, for example), as far as I know the authorship of "The Tale of Cymbaline" is not in dispute.
Regardless, reading the work one cannot but notice the absence of the playwright's extraordinary gift for lapidary exposition. Attend to Iachimo's musings during his uninvited visitation to Imogen's bedchamber, for example. (He's in the process of obtaining ostensible proof of her infidelities.) It simply doesn't scintillate.
These various hindrances serve to undermine the company; a company, I might add, that has proved its worth in the other two-thirds of its repertory season.
Suddenly actors capable of bringing life and intimacy to characters and stories created by Shakespeare and Moli?re appear bearers of dialogue, disparate beings unified only by the spoken word.
The difficulty, however, may be mine.
As writing is a creative act and therefore challenges the status quo, and the same may be said of the interpretations involved in acting, should we shy from the challenges to the norm presented by innovative scenic design and direction?
Have we an obligation to art or is art simply obligated to entertain, not challenge.
If artists acquiesce to middlebrow demands will their labors result in art or simply product?
Because the company's productions of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" and Moli?re's "The School for Wives" are marvelous do we not owe it to the memory of these playwrights to expose ourselves to the challenges presented by Nancy Keystone?