Monday, April 4, 2016

Theater Review: Cymbeline -- Yale Rep

The cast of Cymbeline. Photo © Carol Rosegg, 2016.
This Cymbeline Gives Us an Unexpected Royal Laugh
By Lauren Yarger
When I think of Cymbeline, William Shakepseare’s tale of tragedy and love in Roman-occupied Britain, I don’t usually laugh, but I chuckled quite a bit through Director
Evan Yionoulis’ gender-bending interpretation at Yale Repertory.

I hope the humor was intentional, because it made what usually is a very long, soporific play with its ridiculous “let’s-wrap-it-up” ending quite interesting. Lines delivered with fresh insight bring large belly laughs from the audience – especially during that insipid climax – and make for an entertaining experience.

Also unconventional is Yionoulis’s decision to switch genders for a number of the characters. For most of them, the change remarkably is not noticeable. Kathryn Meisle is a fiery King Cymbeline, who is angered when his only heir and daughter, Imogen (Sheria Irving), marries for love without the king’s permission and banishes her new husband, Posthumus Leonatus (Miriam A. Hyman).

Finding himself in Italy, Posthumus meets conman Iachimo (Jeffrey Carlson) and in a bragging fest, declares that no one could woo his fair Imogen from him. Iachomo pulls off a deception that convinces Posthumus his wife has been unfaithful and he orders his servant, Pisanio (a solid Christopher Michael McFarland) to kill her. Instead, Pisanio spares her and dressed as a boy named Fidele, Imogen ends up serving Belarius (Anthony Cochrane), who also had been banished by Cymbeline years ago, and his two sons (Monique Barbee and Christopher Geary whose identities are a secret known only to Belarius.

Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s ambitious and calculating queen (Michael Manuel) plans to put her own son, Cloten (also Geary), who has his own lecherous designs in Imogen, on the throne. Some sword battles with angry Romans (excellently staged by Fight Director Rick Sordelet), a beheading, a Romeo-and-Juliet-like faked death, multiple confessions and true love all take center stage before the end of this comic tragedy, which is the funniest I ever have seen.

And that’s my short version of Yionoulis’s two-hour-45-minute condensation of the Bard’s play (which sometimes can have a running time of almost four hours).

As I have said, for the most part, using women in men’s roles and vice versa, works very well. Sofia Jean Gomez and Barbee as the first and second lords are convincing and entertaining. Hyman, who is an actress to watch, is excellent as Posthumus and is so convincing as the wronged husband that we honestly forget she is a woman (and visual evidence that might remind us, especially during a bath scene, is artfully hidden in costuming by Asa Benally.)

Tony Manna and Michael Manuel. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Where the gender bending stresses our imagination too much and breaks is in the casting of hefty and tall Manuel as the queen. Looking like a ridiculous drag queen in a flowing robe with heeled boots, his entrances are greeted with laughter, as is much of his dialogue, whether it is funny or not. There really isn’t a purpose to this humor, however, and it distracts from the rest of the production which is nicely staged on Jean Kim’s soaring and brooding stone set with brambles entwining it much as darkness grips this family.

Multiple levels allow for intriguing staging and for the use of superb projections designed by Rasean Davonte Johnson. The materialization of some apparitions is one of the most spectacular and wondrous effects, aided by revealing light design by Elizabeth Mak. Original music and sound design by Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca also adds to the mood.

Cymbeline reigns through April 16 at Yale Rep's University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven. Performance times vary. Tickets $20–$99: www.yalerep.org; (203) 432-1234. Student, senior, and group rates are available.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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