The Be Male, or not to Be Male, That is the Question
By Geary Danihy
Yes, it’s true that in Shakespeare’s time men and boys played women’s roles on stage (because, by law, they had to) and, yes, as the Yale Rep’s playbill notes, women have had occasion to dress as men and, yes, there have been stagings of Shakespeare’s plays that have used cross-gender casting. All of this is noted in the playbill, and as one reads it one gets the feeling that the authors perhaps protest too much as justification for the current casting of Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s later plays that has defied pigeonholing (tragedy? comedy? Perhaps a “romance”?). The play is, at best, problematic, and scenes and plot devices echo many of those used by the Bard in earlier plays, so much so that one gets the feeling that Will might have been running out of gas. In any event, Yale Rep’s current production, under the direction of Evan Yionoulis, reflects, if unintentionally, the problems in the play itself, compounding confusion as to how the audience is supposed to respond to what it is seeing.
In the 18th century, Dr. Johnson, the inestimable poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer, had this to say about Cymbeline: “This play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity. To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.” Well, now -- tell us what your really think, Sam!
Are there plot problems? Yes, indeed. If you tried to diagram who is related to whom and who did what, where and why, you would end up with a spider’s web. As for characters’ motivations, some are clear, some are not. A plot summary would take up too much space – suffice it to say we have a king, Cymbeline (Kathryn Meisle) with a second wife (Michael Manuel), and a daughter, Imogen (Sheria Irving), who has married Posthumus (Miriam A. Hyman), a man not of the royal blood. Oh, yes, there are also two royal sons, Guiderius, a.k.a. Polydore (Robert David Grant) and Arviragus, a.k.a Cadwal (Chalia La Tour), who were kidnapped some twenty years ago by Belarius (Anthony Cochrane). Oh, and yes, there are also some envoys from Rome, three ghosts and the god Jupiter...everything but Yul Brynner!
Okay, let’s stop right here. As you have probably gathered, the king and Posthumus are played by women, and the queen is played by a man. One might well ask, to what purpose, other than that’s how Yionoulis and company wanted to do it. Yes, in Shakespeare’s time the female roles would have been played by males, but would the male roles have been played by females? Yale Rep’s artistic director, James Brady, offers this: the casting captures “both the authenticity and the artifice of the Bard’s aesthetic…” Really? We seems to be comparing what was done out of necessity with what has been done out of choice.
So, the plot is murky at best, and the gender-bending will have some audience members often focusing more on the “Is that a man or woman?” game than attending to what is happening on stage. What statement is being made by the casting decisions escapes me. Yes, there are many lines that deal with gender, that question the true nature of men and women, but are these enhanced, as the playbill suggests, by being delivered by men playing women and women playing men? Perhaps, but now we have gone well beyond the confines of the play as written. Is Posthumus’s rant about women, motivated by his belief that Imogen has been unfaithful, any more effective because it is being delivered by a woman playing the role a man? The playbill notes would have us believe so. And what are we to learn from the fact that the First Lord (Sofia Jean Gomez) and Second Lord (Monique Barbee) are also played by women?
Another question arises. If you decide to go non-traditional with the casting, why opt for a representational set (designed by Jean Kim). Walking into the theater you are confronted by a stone behemoth – a castle with lancet windows, stairs that will be illuminated by candles (and enveloped in smoke – lots of smoke) and walls covered in dead vines. It’s impressive, it’s realistic, and it’s all of a piece and must function as a British castle, Roman baths, and a cave deep in the woods. A more fluid, presentational set might have worked to enhance the casting decisions and the apparent intent of the director, and not left the audience wondering “Where are we now?”
As for the effectiveness of the cross-gender casting (beyond whatever message was intended), it works fairly well with one exception, that of Cymbeline’s queen. Manuel is a rather husky man, and dressed in the costumes and adornments created for him by Asa Benally, he looks (and, unfortunately, acts) as if he has wandered off the set of Hairspray -- he is Edna waiting for Wilbur to burst on the scene to proclaim his adoration of her feminine pulchritude. It’s camp, as is Christopher Geary’s take on the queen’s son, Cloten -- a gay blade given to rants, sulks and hissy-fits.
Back to the playbill. Bundy has written: “This production is also a fantastic introduction to Shakespeare’s work for the hundreds of high school students from New Haven and across Connecticut [who] will join us for this production…” Hmmmm? And what will these hundreds of students take away from this production? One can only wonder. It would seem to me that the best introduction to Shakespeare is to play it straight and then, if you wish, do variations on the theme. Know the rules, and then break them. The reverse, it would seem to me, only leads to confusion.
There are many fine moments in Yale Rep’s production of Cymbeline, but they are overshadowed by the “vision” or “concept” that the creative team has burdened it with, and an audience member may come away feeling that he or she has been pummeled by unclear ancillary messages that have little or nothing to do with the play.
Cymbeline runs through April 16. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org