Theater Review - Head games

Just how seriously can we take The Tale of Cymbeline? Shakespeare’s seldom-produced late period play incorporates enough plot for five operas, and features a headless body, a bodiless head, a life-sized deer carcass and a deus ex machina. It would be laughable if it had any punchlines, or tragic if it had a tragic hero.

Director Nancy Keystone shrewdly turns the Georgia Shakespeare Festival’s Cymbeline into a vehicle for an evening of striking theatrical effects. The overstuffed script becomes a frame for Keystone’s visual ideas, akin to the play’s literal frame, from which props such as a bloody dress and a massive tree trunk dangle.

The play’s primary story involves Imogen (Courtney Patterson), daughter of English King Cymbeline (John Ammerman). She’s married to the noble Posthumus but is promised to the nasty Cloten. When the conniving Iachimo (Brad Sherrill) tricks Imogen’s husband into believing his wife has cheated on him, Posthumus becomes enraged. Keystone casts Joe Knezevich as both of Imogen’s suitors, and although the actor gives them some intriguing similarities and distinctions, it’s hard to tell them apart when they both make misogynistic tirades.

As Imogen, Patterson invites sympathy with her many woes — she’s forever on the verge of calamity. Yet the actress seems more comfortable with comedy than Cymbeline’s histrionics, doing her most vivid work at the rare moments when Imogen is exuberantly happy.

Keystone’s sets, Leon Wiebers’ costumes and Klimchak’s music draw inspiration from every imaginable cultural source. When Imogen’s wicked stepmother (Carolyn Cook) acquires poisons, she wears a white lab coat and black goggles in a set dressed with creepy beakers, reminiscent of a 1930s mad scientist movie. The scenes in Britain and Wales evoke Braveheart, but Rome is represented by a homoerotic bathhouse with techno music. The final battle includes Roman centurions and police in riot gear.

So many quirks and concepts would make any other play feel over-directed, but they give Cymbeline its excitement. Unfortunately, the show’s three-hour length drains some of its thrills. Were it a half-hour shorter, Keystone’s Cymbeline would jump-start the script for the 21st century.

The Tale of Cymbeline plays through Aug. 10 at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m.; 2 and 8 p.m. Sun. $10-$32. 404-264-0020.