Critics have always been wary of “Cymbeline.” The general consensus is that if Shakespeare literally gave birth to his plays the way Zeus gave birth to Athena, Cymbeline would be the ugly child who never really grew out of the “I Am SOOOoOO Random! XD” phase.
Samuel Johnson, the man who wrote “A Dictionary of the English Language,” was the most famous critic of Cymbeline, writing: “To remark the folly of the fiction … [is] to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.” Others have floated theories that Shakespeare was becoming a “wearied artist,” or was “bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama.” “Cymbeline,” like other obnoxious preteens, was not well received, perhaps because the play defies categorization; there are scenes too heavy for it to be a comedy, but its ending doesn’t make it a tragedy either.
But despite the sick burns dealt by 18th-century scholars (or perhaps because of them?), the Yale Repertory Theatre is staging “Cymbeline” through April 16. Evan Yionoulis is directing.
One of the most interesting choices Yionoulis and casting director Tara Rubin made in staging this adaptation was gender-bending this genre-bending play. “Cymbeline” has two female characters, and, like many of the women in Shakespearean plays, they are two-dimensional: good and chaste, or evil and ambitious.
The most notable gender swaps are of Cymbeline and the Queen. While Shakespeare intended the titular character to be physically domineering and brimming with testosterone, the Rep has cast Kathryn Meisle, a petite actress, plays the titular character, a king whose authority is inextricable from his maleness. The Queen, played by the six-foot-something giant Michael Manuel, towers over her king. It is important to note that Yionoulis’s “Cymbeline” isn’t drag, though; gender-swapped characters don’t exaggerate their masculinity or femininity, which is part of what makes this production so unique.
But what makes this adaptation notable is not its gender-blind casting; “Cymbeline” has been cast gender-blind many times. What makes this adaptation so notable is the actors’ dexterity. Meisle’s Cymbeline is so artful. When she walks across the stage as the king, she carries herself with such authority and self-assurance that it’s disorienting to see that kind of power emanating from such a feminine actress. Witnessing scenes wherein Cymbeline is exercising his very male authority over his Queen and subjects is disconcerting, which is the reaction Yionoulis undoubtedly wanted.
Meisle and Manuel aren’t the only capable actors in the show. The cast is one of the strongest I’ve seen this season at the Rep. Jeffrey Carlson as Iachimo strikes the perfect note between desperation and repentance. Christopher Geary’s Cloten huffs and puffs, in just the right keys, up and down the set. Posthumus Leonatus, another gender-bent role, is played so naturally by Miriam Hyman that I actually can’t imagine the character being played by a man.
The set and costume matched the production’s tone very well. It’s a consistent show, with the exception of the combat scenes. The battles were drowned in alternating white and red lighting, which might have been a powerful choice had the actors been trained a little more thoroughly — the fights looked more like interpretive dances.
The Rep is reliably good, and this production of “Cymbeline” is no different. The cast is delightful to watch, even when they are waving their arms around and clinking plastic swords together. Under Yionoulis’ wing, Shakespeare’s ugly child might have grown into a mature adult.