Gender bending is old hat to Shakespeare. After all, his plays were performed with all male casts during his lifetime, since women were not permitted to appear on stage. In addition, there’s plenty of gender bending within his output as well, with plays like “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night” among those in which female characters disguise themselves as young boys.
As a result, director Evan Yionoulis’s decision to cast the Yale Repertory Theatre’s current production of “Cymbeline” with women in several key male roles and a man in at least one significant female part doesn’t seem that far-fetched at all. It certainly doesn’t deter from following the plot, while simultaneously providing some food for thought as the evening progresses. For example, one is struck by how few actual female parts there are in “Cymbeline,” with only the King of Britain’s daughter, Imogen, and Cymbeline’s second wife, the Queen, as major roles and an occasional lady in waiting or servant here or there. Why not give female actors the chance to play some of the male roles?
It seems to be all the rage these days to play with gender casting in Shakespeare. Last year, New York saw an all-male version of “Twelfth Night” and an all-female version of “Henry IV” on the heels of the previous year’s all-female production of “Julius Caesar.” There have been many famous female Hamlets over the years and more recently, we’ve seen Helen Mirren tackle Prospero (as Prospera) in a film version of “The Tempest” and Olympia Dukakis in the role at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass, where their production of both parts of “Henry IV” had both the title character and his son, the wayward heir Prince Hal, played by women.
The major exception to Yionoulis’s casting conceit in “Cymbeline,” which officially opened on Thursday, March 31, is the character of Imogen, who is played by a talented and stunning actress, Sheria Irving, who successfully captures all of joys, disappointments, betrayals and grief that the character encounters in this plot-filled play. She becomes the defacto center of the production, surrounded as she is by characters played by actors of opposite genders. The wonderful Kathryn Meisle makes for a commanding figure as the titular King, especially when she dons protective armour and easily wields a swinging sword. She’s not quite as believable conveying Cymbeline’s anger at his daughter’s secret wedding to a poor commoner, Posthumus Leonatus, an orphan adopted by Cymbeline and raised essentially alongside Imogen. Just the mere image of seeing Meisle in the part forces one to ponder whether an actual female monarch would be so callous to her daughter as to permanently exile her husband.
Posthumus is played by a very game Miriam A. Hyman, who not only is able to demonstrate Posthumus’ natural tenderness to Imogen but also depicts his masculine swagger. In a clever bit of impressive stagecraft and costume design, Yionoulis has Posthumus enter an Italian spa bare chested. He unfortunately makes a bet with an Italian friend, the Iago-like Iachimo, as to whether Imogen can remain faithful to her husband while he is in exile. In one of the major parts not switched to the opposite gender, Jeffrey Carlson, an outstanding Edward II at Yale a number of years ago, assays a selfishly confident Iachimo, aware of his good looks and sexual appeal, ultimately willing to sustain a false accusation against Imogen that prompts Posthumus to take some drastic actions.
The evil queen/stepmother is a contrasting example of gender bending, as the six foot plus Michael Manuel steps into that character’s oversize pink shoes and flowing dresses. Manuel’s performance, which drew a large audience guffaw during her first appearance on stage, quickly asserts itself as something more than just drag, a bit hard to do because of the actor’s size, as the contrast between the Queen’s stature over the smaller Cymbeline cements her position as domineering and controlling over her husband.
Three other roles are subject to the opposite gender casting, including two of Cymbeline’s advisors and supporters, the two lords played by Sofia Jean Gomez and Monique Barbee, who come off as wise and quietly assertive. Chalia LaTour gets a chance to cross-dress as Cadwal, one of two sons of Belarius, another banished lord of Britain, who now lives with his sons in a forest outside Milford Haven in Wales, where Imogen goes searching for Posthumus.
Yionoulis doesn’t overstress those lines of Shakespeare’s dialogue that take on new meaning when spoken by a character played by a member of the other gender. They manage to produce knowing laughter on their own, such as Meisle mouthing Cymbeline’s frustrated line, “Who ist who can read a woman,” or Imogen being instructed to “forget how to be a woman” as she disguises herself as the servant boy Fedele in order to venture outside the kingdom in search of Posthumus.
Though often listed among the Bard’s tragedies, Yionoulis directs “Cymbeline” more as a comedy with serious underpinnings, in part due to the unusual nature of the play’s expansive and occasionally bizarre plot, which jumps back and forth among locations in Britain, Italy and Wales, with such far-flung elements as the beheading of a major comic villain, a vial of a secret potion, the surreptitious entry into a woman’s room with the hope of assaulting her, two brothers developing an immediate filial love for a stranger caught stealing from them, and the longest reconciliation scene in all of Shakespeare—just when you think all plot elements have been resolved, another character opens his or her mouth and we’re off on another round of startling revelations. One vocal audience member kept noisily gasping with each new shocking explanation.
I was pleased that Yionoulis made the decision to include two scenes that I’ve seen heavily edited or even cut from some recent productions. The only deux ex machina scene in all of Shakespeare is played out as part of a ghost story, amidst sheet-draped actors, fog and eerie noises, as the God Jupiter issues his instructions to Posthumus as the first in the line of the banished young man’s ancestors. Yionoulis also stages the burial scene with the beheaded body in full view of the audience, which becomes quite amusing as the audience eagerly anticipates Imogen’s reaction. It is here that Christopher Geary gets to shine as Cymbeline’s stepson, Cloten, the cloddish, foolish son of the ambitious Queen, although his fey act proves to be seriously grating after a short while.
Jean Kim’s set design is dominated by a massive stone wall cut with back and forth steps that head up toward the University Theater’s fly space. It resembles a crumbling Britain castle, while also serving as a multi-level battlefield, as the Roman army ultimately invades Britain over Cymbeline’s refusal, at the insistence of his greedy queen, to pay the empire a negotiated tribute. It accommodates most of the other locations as well, with a cave representing the banished lord’s home in Wales and, in what merely looks like an outcropping of rocks, a steaming spa to allow for the pleasures of Posthumus’ Roman friends.
Asa Benally’s costumes are clever and colorful, with an array of dresses, robes, capes and tunics of diverse and sometime outlandish detail, even for most of the peripheral characters like the doctor Cornelius. For the battle sequences, Benally has provided sets of dark color coded costumes for the two sides. Those scenes are lit by Elizabeth Mak, whose design plan allows the choreographed combat to range over the set’s various levels frequently in silhouette. Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca has provided an unusually rich background score that in particular supports the transition between scenes.
Although the evening runs close to three hours in length, Yionoulis and her cast keep the proceedings running so smoothly that one’s attention rarely has a chance to wander. There is so much going on with the twists and turns of the Shakespeare play as well as with Yionoulis’ thought-provoking casting concept, that there is plenty to keep an audience absorbed by this gripping production of a rarely produced Shakespearean play.
“Cymbeline” plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre’s University Theatre through April 16. For information and tickets, call the Yale Rep Box Office at 203.432.1234 or visit the theater’s website at www.yalerep.org.