Obscure Shakespeare Play Finds Its Voice

Jul 6, 2017

From left, Nisi Sturgis as Imogen, the king's daughter, and Thomas Anthony Quinn as King Cymbeline in Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.
Credit Illinois Shakespeare Festival

When Shakespeare first wrote Cymbeline in 1623, it was well received. But by the 18th century, the play had fallen out of favor.

Audiences found it difficult to pin down and classify, plus it was darkly comedic and just had a whole lot going on from curtain up to curtain down. But there's a new adaptation afoot at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival that puts the problems of the play in their place and sets the action under the big top.  

Andy Park is directing a new adaptation of the show by Chris Coleman, entitled Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline. He admitted that Cymbeline is one of those shows that most people will go their entire lives without ever seeing a production, much less even hearing the title.

"What Chris Coleman has done is taken a play that a lot of people think is inaccessible or is considered one of Shakespeare's problem plays, and he's turned it into something that is absolutely madcap fun," Park said.

Director Andy Park.
Credit Courtesy / Illinois Shakespeare Festival

The reason Cymbeline was branded a problem play, Park explained, was that this late-career work didn't fall into a clean category, like comedy or tragedy or romance. In fact, it was all of the above.

"I think it's OK to call it a problem play, or experimental, if you will, as long as you don't dismiss it. I think that for too long, people have dismissed this play," Park said. "And I think it's important to remember that Shakespeare was a seasoned professional by the time he wrote this thing. He was at the top of his game. I think it's a fascinating play and I'm glad that the festival is tackling it."

The chance to direct a hidden gem of Shakespeare was what drew Park to this show. And it's Cymbeline's obscurity that gives the production team a chance to be flexible with the material.

"We've given our show  a 19th century American circus feel. When you walk into the theater, you definitely get the sense of a circus. The title of the show is actually the name of an ancient British king. So he's actually the ringmaster in our show, and all the other characters in our show take on aspects that you might associate with a circus."

"Definitely come and check out Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline. It's a play that you may not get another chance to see. It is a lot of fun, and very moving, too."

The show is running in rotation at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival through August 12.

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