Gender Benders -- Cymbeline at Yale Rep

By Tom Nissley

I remember that Rudolph Bing, for so many years the head of the
Metropolitan Opera, said about auditions for that great institution
something to the effect that “you know in a minute if a singer has the
presence that works on stage.” I thought of him as I struggled to
appreciate the immense effort that has gone into creating a
“Cymbeline” like no other production ever shared, anywhere. Because
beneath the hard work of this carefully assembled company, on a
magnificent set, enhanced with fabulous projections, with equally
spectacular lighting and sound, and varied costumes, there seemed to
be an abundance of actors whose ‘presence’ missed the mark.

The productions at Yale are often relevant to the social concerns of
the world around us. And this one is thoroughly so. In a time when
women’s roles in every aspect of business and politics and sports and
combat are being highlighted with serious concern, to choose to cast a
Shakespeare play with a real admixture of women and men acting the
characters seems like a great idea. Overturning the Elizabethan
men-only rule by inversion can at least remind us of the strange
history of the Bard’s productions through the years. Furthermore, this
is a Will-Power production, so hundreds of school children will get to
see it and be impressed by the number of roles played by women, and
have a chance to discuss, whether formally or informally, how that
helped them understand the play, or not.

So what will they say on the school bus on the way home? “Did you
think that guy in the purple dress was a woman? Hahaha. That was a
man, in high heels. He was in drag, man. That was no woman.” They’ll
get that one. “Did you think the king was a man? No way. That was a
woman trying to look like a man. Didn’t you see the way she waved her
sword in the air all over the place? The king was a woman.” They’ll
get that one too. But what will the get, in the getting? Will they get
that a woman is a chancellor in Germany and that’s a good thing? Or
will they get that the big queen in purple, liar though she was, had
used her beauty to overwhelm a king’s mourning for lost children in
order to get her own son a royal title? I doubt that one, although it
is the essence of the role of the big guy in purple. She is a wicked
queen with the same allure as Titania or the Queen of the Night – who
gazes into a mirror and says ‘I am the fairest of them all.’ How does
casting Michael Manuel in green platform shoes get that to happen? It
doesn’t, but while we’re on the subject there are at least two male
students at Yale Drama right now who could have played a beautiful,
seductive, mean queen with artistic skill that convinced. I don’t know
them or who they are, but I’m betting my ducats that they’re
available. And then we would be on to what the young men in
Shakespeare’s company were asked to do with that role!

So let’s move to what really worked well in this production. Some of
the actors displayed beautiful energy. Christopher Geary’s Cloten had
immense impact. Pouting, pounding, wailing, he was all there and
everyone got him. Jeffrey Carlson’s Iachimo was beautifully
performed. Sheria Irving’s Imogen was powerful, and we all followed
her character just as well after she changed costume and became a
(male) youth. Robert David Grant was a super Guiderus, athletic and
full of ‘presence.’ Jonathan Higginbotham’s Caius Lucius was eminently
noble and wore a super costume. (There were many interesting and good
costumes, courtesy of Asa Benally’s designs). Miriam A. Hyman’s
Posthumus was decidedly mixed, but she displayed good energy in a
really complicated role and also deserves credit for at least one
costume change that allowed her gender to be well disguised.
Christopher Michael McFarland’s Pisanio was superb. And I liked
Anthony Cochrane’s Belarius, and Philario too.

Jean Kim’s scenic design deserves nomination for finest scenic design.
It included, with the aid of marvelous projections (Rasean Davonte
Johnson) and imaginative lighting (Elizabeth Max), a towering castle
in Briton, a relaxing pool in a fine house in Rome, private rooms in
the castle, a cave in the forest in Wales, a burial spot in the
forest, a battlefield. Simply splendid. The original music and sound
design by Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca was very effective.

The production was directed by Evan Yianoulis, a very talented
director with many credits. This will be one of them, but its goals of
emphasizing all the ways roles may be reversed by gender may have
overwhelmed the power of the production. A friend at Yale noted that
the audience was very interesting on the opening night. Yes, they
were. They laughed a lot. The school children will too. But they’ll
have to do some follow up work to know what they were laughing at, and that, in some ways is a demerit.

You can, of course, study up beforehand, and go to see the production
just because of all the good stuff.

“Cymbeline” will play until April 16. Information at www.yalerep.org,
or 203-432-1234

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