Summer Shakespeare Festival 2022
This summer the Nashville Shakespeare Festival performed Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s last plays. I won’t go much into the plot of the play in this review; a quick google search will get you a multitude of better summaries than I can give you. Basically, the virtuous Princess Imogen stands against her shallow and scheming family to marry the man she loves. Her husband promptly makes a bet with a playboy that she’s faithful. The husband too easily believes the lie that Imogen slept with the playboy. Murderous plots abound, Imogen disguises herself as a boy and hides in the country, long lost siblings are discovered, a war begins and ends, and everything works out in a climactic final scene. Cymbeline is a delightful, plot-filled comedy. Its jokes range from subtle lines to slapstick, and a lot of instant vengeful rage and violence are immediately doused and turned into forgiveness. Most of the characters have the sort of depth you’d expect from your average sitcom, although it’s full of Shakespearean profundities as well. It’s a bit of a mystery why the play is named Cymbeline; there was an ancient British king named Cunobeline, although the events of the play barely match the historical events. In the play King Cymbeline is a side character causing difficulties while his daughter Imogen is the main character; it’d be as if J. K Rowling named her book Vernon Dursley and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
I saw the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s final performance of Cymbeline, August 18th, 2022. While all their other performances this year had been at Nashville’s OneC1TY venue, this one took place at Franklin’s Academy Park. Last year I saw the festival performance of Twelfth Night at OneC1TY, and when I compare my experience between the two venues, I have to say that, while Academy Park wasn’t urban or cool (we were on a soccer field behind the Williamson County Performing Arts Center), I much preferred the Franklin venue. Instead of dealing with garage or street parking at OneC1TY, I parked in the lot behind the Williamson County Library directly beside the field. The location is conveniently close to historic downtown Franklin and its many restaurants and shops.
The stage was to the south and the Academy Park gym to our right blocked the sun; the field was almost completely in shade by 6:30. Bathrooms were located in the gym and it was nice to be able to use air-conditioned facilities with running water. Last year at OneC1TY they had a port-a-potty trailer, which was also air conditioned with running water, but I had the uncomfortable feeling of maybe being in the wrong spot when I used it, despite the clear signage. It may also be that nothing feels so much like a community event than using part of a community gym.
I arrived a little over thirty minutes before the play was scheduled to start. There were two food trucks, an Italian ice stand, and the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s official tent with drinks and snacks and merch. After a disappointing snow cone the night before at the Nashville Fair, I told myself that I wouldn’t buy an Italian ice. After seeing a woman buy a delicious looking one, I joined the line before noticing that the cart had a sign saying cash only. I’m under thirty so I sighed and took my cashless self out of line. I was able to buy a cold $2 Coke from the official tent using my card.
This was their 34th Summer Shakespeare production and their experience showed. Their performances are free, although they suggest a ten-dollar donation. They helpfully have QR codes so you can donate with your phone and volunteers were handing out demographic surveys as entries for a drawing, whose prize winners were announced during intermission.
The field was well tended and the white lines painted to designate the blanket and lawn chair seating were clear. The stage was midway down the field and four large wedges of lawn seating with aisles separating them were surrounded by ten or so small metal bleachers, possibly the same ones I sat on last year at OneC1TY. Besides having no sunlight to squint against and a more centered view of the stage, the bleachers somehow felt more comfortable than they did last year, although that probably has more to do with the twenty extra pounds of padding I’ve been carrying since giving birth six months ago.
The demographic was different than OneC1Ty’s last year, fewer diverse twenty-somethings and more older couples and families with children, which is probably more a reflection of the Franklin demographic than a sign of a sudden shift in audience. Before the play started the playground by the gym was full of kids.
When I first arrived, Ele Ivory was performing pleasant indie-pop, and shortly after 6:30 several important people within the Nashville Shakespeare Festival took the stage to thank sponsors and helpful people who made the event happen, and other general, inevitable community event statements that nobody pays attention to. The stage was empty for another ten or fifteen minutes.
The stage was made of risers and had no roof, with stairs leading down to the grass on the front and sides and two backstage entrances with black cloths hanging to provide some screening. Three white tents with tarp walls flanked the stage to form the dressing rooms. There were some gaps where it was easy to see behind the stage and I thought it would be distracting during the performance, but it wasn’t. I never noticed anything that wasn’t supposed to be drawing my attention.
Shane Lowery’s stage design was simple. The backdrop was lovely and consisted of tall trees in a forest without underbrush, a true fantasy here in Tennessee. Four tall, rectangular columns stood across the stage, their wooden sides denoting indoors. When spun, trees painted on their other sides matched the backdrop. These columns were also used to hide characters when scenes called for it. A few large square blocks were moved on stage when seats or a bed was called for, but besides a large trunk that a villain hid inside, the only props were weapons and other handheld items.
About five minutes before the play was to begin, the apprentice players came out in costume and stood along the stage, each taking their turn to thank various sponsors and people like us who made it possible. After another brief pause with an empty stage, loud, vaguely medieval-sounding synths played a fanfare and three people dressed in costume came out calling, “Where is that girl!” Then they stood and asked us to make sure that we silenced our cell phones and other basic courtesies. Then they resumed calling for that girl and left the stage. As they left the stage new people entered and immediately began speaking. It took me a moment to realize that the play had already begun. This was an awkward moment, because the beginning is expository dialogue between characters and I’d missed several key sentences, my mind having expected more requests for polite behavior and not Elizabethan English. I don’t know if the abrupt start was intended or was an accident of the evening, but it made for a bemused audience.
After a few minutes of slight confusion and a quick glance at the summary in the program, I understood the initial setup and what was going on. The characters spoke their lines well and their body language helped make the meanings clear; it’s proof of a good Shakespearean performance when the play is more understandable acted out on stage than it is when read through with footnotes and the time to mull over sentences.
Jamie Herb was marvelous as Imogen. She made her character’s fidelity spirited and proof of a strong character. Her tears and laughter pulled me in and she had excellent comedic timing. Andrew Johnson played Cloten, the oafish suitor who won’t take Imogen’s no as an answer, and hammed it up delightfully. I regretted it when he was decapitated and thus no longer able to goof onstage. Tamiko Robinson Steele played Cornelius, the shrewd court doctor, and although she really only had two scenes, she made her moments count; her asides about tricking the queen made us laugh. Ethan Lyvers played Posthumus, Imogen’s husband, and he made his character as charming and good-hearted as possible, despite the difficulties of the character: if my husband thought I had cheated on him I wouldn’t expect his next move to be to tell one of his employees to murder me. And like most people, when I first entered the dating scene I was warned to look at how a person treats waiters, so when Posthumus punched Imogen while disguised as a page when she tried to comfort him, I wouldn’t have jumped as promptly into his arms as she did a few minutes later.
Besides two dramatic scenes, little incidental music was used throughout the play, an occasional flourish opening a scene and some singing from the actors. One song was sung by a quartet that Cloten had hired to serenade Imogen and their performance was musical and funny. It sounded like an Elizabethan-era madrigal. I don’t know if it was an arrangement of an existing tune or if Paul Carrol Binkley, the credited composer for this play, wrote it. Either way, the music surprised and impressed me.
The play is set in Britain during the days of Augustus Caesar, so besides a few centurion outfits, Bethany Dinkel’s costuming was generally medieval, and each character had a distinctive look, helping us to tell them apart in crowded scenes.
Leah Lowe directed Cymbeline. Under her lead the production was fun, the acting felt natural and characters casually insulted each other or wept in betrayal, their iambic pentameter flowing so smoothly that I often forgot I was listening to blank verse. She allowed the humor and pathos of the text to live and didn’t feel a need to shoehorn any politics or contemporary references into the performance, staying true to the enduring quality of Shakespeare. I saw the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company do Cymbeline in Boston in 2019, and when I compared the two performances I preferred the Nashville production—their production was livelier and sillier.
Blocked from streetlights by the performing arts building, the seating became dark as night fell. This made the light-up-sneakers of two boys in the large family climbing around on the bleachers beside me extra glaring. Their parents had opted to maintain the minivan method of seating, sitting separately in chairs and leaving their children to fidget behind them. Besides those children, the crowd was absorbed in the performance, with the exception of a middle-aged man in front of me, who naturally had his phone on light mode with full brightness.
Players were able to leave the stage down the aisles between seating and disappear into the dark field behind the bleachers, allowing us to forget about them exactly when they wanted us to, and we didn’t have to see them rushing around as harried actors. It was a smoother transition than it would have been in a theater, where the clunk of doors and the exit sign lights would have marked boundaries.
The play was roughly two and a half hours long and had one fifteen-minute intermission. When intermission began the soccer field lights were turned on and lit up the entire field, making the rushes to the bathrooms and concessions easy.
During intermission the light-up-sneaker boys continued to jump around the low bleachers and, inevitably, one of them fell and landed uncomfortably on the ground. There was a pause as he took in what happened and was deciding how upset he was, when one of the volunteers, a young woman with blond hair and plastic rimmed glasses said, “Wow, that was a cool fall! Do you want some stickers?” It was masterful. The boy’s siblings quickly informed her that he’d already gotten a sticker and she ended up giving them all some.
The second half of the performance began more smoothly than the first and the audience continued to be engaged, laughing at the jokes and clapping after dramatic moments. Posthumus’s dream scene, when his dead parents appear and beseech the gods on his behalf and Jupiter gives a monologue, was markedly different and had a sense of humor, with synths playing loudly, golden lighting, and sing-song speeches from the characters. The ghosts bobbed back and forth like underwater plants, and the whole scene had a music video feel, if the music video was a pagan version of a non-denominational worship service.
The war scenes’ swords were swung widely and slowly, some of the motions actually in semi-slomo. With a stage full of people running around pretending to kill each other they have to be careful to not actually do it, so I appreciated the way the choreography embraced the emphasized slowness. The bloody lighting, the echoing hollow drums, and a moment when everyone froze as Iachimo gave his guilty confession was striking and dramatic.
My only real disappointment of the night was at the end, as the actors bowed. I was prepared to continue clapping until my hands grew numb and my arms tired, but after full applause for the troupe and the lights went up, people stopped clapping and quickly began gathering their blankets and chairs. There were no curtain calls. I think much of that had to do with how cool the breezy night had become, most of the people in shorts and summer dresses, but they could have warmed themselves with vigorous applause for a fine performance.
Link to donate to the Nashville Shakespeare Festival: Donate Now – The Nashville Shakespeare Festival
Link for information on their winter performance of Love’s Labor’s Lost: Winter Shakespeare