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Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" is being performed at Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre, but the title might just as well be applied to a Shakespeare play at the Tom Patterson. "Cymbeline" is about the whackiest play you will find in all of Shakespeare.

Like a tragedy trying desperately to be a farce, the story moves along at breakneck speed, piling one absurdity upon the next. Characters crop up who are gullible enough to fall for the flimsiest of disguises or believe any hare-brained ruse. The evil is laid on thick in the person of that wickedest of wicked stepmothers, the Queen (Martha Henry). She was born to plot like some people are said to be born to shop. Her diabolical powers control the dim King Cymbeline (James Blendick) and promote the career of her dolt of a son Cloten (Ron Kennell).

The heroine, Imogen (Clare Jullien), is so blessedly pure that Shakespeare felt free to have her half-drugged to death at one point and at another smacked in the head by Posthumus (Dan Chameroy), a husband so oblivious that he thinks his wife a page just because she's wearing pants.

Truely, anything does go in this strange concoction. For instance, there's Iachimo (Dion Johnstone), who for no good reason other than he's the betting sort invents a cheap Iago plot to fool Imogen's banished husband. His brilliant idea is to gather false evidence on her fidelity by hiding in a big trunk in Imogen's bedroom and popping out after she's asleep -- a trick that, incredibly, allows him to lift her covers and spot a little tell-tale mole on her breast.

After various violent, convoluted happenings, you begin to suspect that things may not turn out all that well, that this "romance" really is a tragedy. The bloodly beheading of Cloten is made more of a grotesquerie by having the body mistaken for that of her husband by the otherwise intelligent Imogen (who uses it for a "bloody pillow" until some kindly Romans drag her away). Then it all rapidly decelerates to -- what? -- a happy ending! In the final scene nearly all the principles come forward to admit that certain acts never happened, that this person is not who he or she appears to be, that Cymbeline has been duped, that Posthumous has been duped, that the now-dead Queen has been duped, that for all we know the horses have been duped. In the fanciful world of "Cymbeline" identity is a slippery thing.

Intermediate string overflow Cannot justify line Director David Latham will have none of that. He goes for a rudimentary realism that, remarkedly considering the play, hardly ever spills over into melodrama. There is no messing around with the story or characters. Latham's straightforwardness has many advantages. For one thing, it allows the brilliance of the construction of this maddingly complex play to come through. Every silly cog and wheel whirls along perfectly here; none are buried under gratuitous showmanship or excessive sets and costumes. We should all be grateful that Leon Rubin, who is busy making a circus spectacular out of "Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Festival Theatre, didn't get his mitts on this one.

If these ridiculous events are to be fit into a realist mold then the actors must, in some way, seem slightly outside the plot where they can work the lines -- many quite beautiful -- as aesthetic things in themselves. Henry as the Queen does this with sublime force, making the part almost a marvelous demonstration piece on how to render Shakesperean evil. And Blendick as Cymbeline makes sense out of nonsense, giving a relaxed elegance to a perpetually confounded mentality. In the final scene when he's told that the Queen is dead and, in the same breath, that she loathed both him and his daughter, even Blendick's grunts seem to be part of a larger rhythmic flow.

Jullien is a little too soft and pliable a Imogen, perhaps. But, amid the swirl of mentally or emotionally dislodged folk around her, she does project her character's infallible reasonableness. And she has a nice romantic presence, very fitting for Imogen.

Kennell I thought pushed too hard to make Cloten a repugnant character. He's close to parody, hopping around and whining and shrieking. The words tell the story of his idiocy. Shoving his horridness into our faces Kennell gives us nothing to break through to, no space to unearth the depths of a corrosive personality.

Even Latham, Blendick and the rest of this fine cast couldn't prevent the spontaneous laughter that came with the final scene. The revelations that came pouring out were just too ridiculous. The queen hates the king's guts. The knocked-about page is really Imogen. The rustic heros of the war are actually Cymbeline's abducted sons. Iachimo didn't really seduce Imogen. By the time Cornelius, the good doctor (played with delightful fretfulness by Ian Deakin) announces that, oh, he forgot one thing -- the poison wasn't really poison but a mere sleep-inducer -- the audience can't help but break up. I don't remember laughter in that fussed-up version 40 years ago. It must be what a director must pay to do this odd and wonderful play straight.


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