William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline — now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through April 16 — is a hard play to pin down. It’s almost as if the great playwright, late in his career, started throwing stuff at the stage to see what would stick. Initially, the play got classified as a tragedy, which is preposterous. It ends happily for everyone but the villains, with one of the most delightful final scenes in all of Shakespeare. Then again, if it’s a comedy, it amuses with murder plots, warfare, ghostly apparitions, and a headless corpse.
For some, the play is best identified as romance, which means, essentially, that it can have whatever elements Will wills.
In this production — the first time the Rep has ever staged the play — some new wrinkles have been added. In Shakespeare’s day, men tended to play all the parts, a convention improved upon by allowing women to take part ages ago. The key idea in director Evan Yionoulis’s casting is that gender specificity is old hat, and that Shakespeare, with his heroines often disguised as men, is best served by greater license in assigning roles. Whether a character is designated as male or female puts no constraints on the gender of the actor.
Cymbeline should be a fitting play for such a revolution in casting if only because it’s a play that is neither fish nor fowl. The story: King Cymbeline (Kathryn Meisle) is pretty much mastered by his plotting queen (Michael Manuel) and banishes a formerly beloved courtier, Posthumus Leonatus (Miriam A. Hyman), for marrying his daughter, Imogen (Sheria Irving). This is to make way, supposedly, for the queen’s clod of a son, Cloten (Christopher Geary), to win Imogen. Imogen has other ideas and sets off, disguised as a boy, to find Posthumus, who, unbeknownst to her, wants her dead because he’s convinced she slept with the conniving Iachimo (Jeffrey Carlson).
Imogen is the heroine, and it wouldn’t be amiss to name the play for her. Irving plays her with passion and gives us a sense of how engaging she might be if not mostly frustrated at every turn. She pines with real hunger for her betrothed, resists Iachimo with great self-possession, and holds off Cloten with keen ill will. Disguised as the charming Fidelia, she is taken into the lowly home of Belarius (Anthony Cochrane), a banished lord raising the king’s lost sons, whom he kidnapped some twenty years before. Where all this goes, you have to stick around to see.
Along the way, some bits might best be trimmed, but there are some delights. Christopher Geary might, at times, overdo Cloten’s flouncing absurdity, though the first half needs his tireless energy. In the beautiful setting and rendering of “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun,” sung by the king’s disguised sons, Guiderius (Robert David Grant) and Arviragus (Chalia La Tour), both actors give much substance to their roles as the brothers, and the song’s vocal arrangement shows the value of having a girl play a boy. Jeffrey Carlson’s deeply hammy Iachimo keeps us aware that the play is often laughing at itself. Jonathan Higginbotham brings much manly dignity to the role of Caius Lucius, and Monique Barbee is a second lord primed to be a Shakespearean heroine in male clothing. Tony Manna’s Cornelius, in an opulent gown, makes the most of his comic asides and detailed remembering. As the lovers, Irving and Hyman, though they can get a bit breathless, are both poised on the verge of breakout roles.
The overall effect of the gender-swapping casting is varied, and I couldn’t resist playing armchair director, wondering how the play would play with traditional casting. Some choices feel a bit gimmicky. Giggles when a towering man (Michael Manuel) dressed in regal drag is addressed as “my queen” may add to the mirth. A woman (Miriam Hyman) playing the hero Posthumus fuming that the woman is to blame for just about everything adds, I suppose, a welcome bit of irony, though that’s not how Hyman plays it. She is a particularly emotive he. As Cymbeline, a king we rarely hear from until the end, Kathryn Meisle seems simply a rather stern woman. When reconciled to her children, she quite naturally speaks of mothering. There’s no point in looking for much point in the gender shifts. That may be the point.
Jean Kim’s set is an atmospheric eyeful. Four or five levels high, with stairs and windows and arches, it is a work of art in itself, where a palace can be relit and washed with projections to become mountainous terrain with a cave. It’s stunning. Its wealth of visual detail tends to distract in the court scenes, but it does add greatly to the rustic setting of Wales in the play’s second part. Projection wizard Rasean Davonte Johnson and lighting magus Elizabeth Mak work wonders. Don’t miss the birds flying high above in the clouds when we’re introduced to Guiderius and Arviragus. And the ghostly apparitions add uncanny effects to a scene that otherwise doesn’t add much, other than a minor deus ex machina.
Cymbeline is a romance if only because it follows themes common enough in the roman—as in, the conventional stories of kings’ sons raised as rustics who remain noble nonetheless. There are gestures toward the novel idea that the court is corrupt and the world of commoners better at character molding. But in the end, princes will be kings, and the princess’s husband must prove a valiant warrior and forgiving courtier. Yionoulis’s cast and direction mostly keep it moving and if the first half lags a bit, the second half is well worth it. Shakespeare’s set-up might beg our patience, but his finish requites our pains, and all’s well that ends well.