Monday, July 25, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Ismenia Mendes on Cressida

Since most Shakespearean casts are male-heavy (and some are male-only), coverage tends to focus on men who create the work. Let's balance that out! This is #13 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work in New York.

This summer, Ismenia Mendes stars in Troilus and Cressida at the Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park. Our conversation about Much Ado's Hero (who she played at the same venue in Summer '14) inspired me to start this series, so I'm particularly thrilled to email with her about her return visit to the Delacorte, and how her perspective on Shakespeare's women has changed in two years.


It's a pleasure to talk with you again, Ismenia! Let’s start with your role as Cressida. She’s not as well-known as most of Shakespeare’s heroines. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating? What are her finest qualities, and her worst ones? What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

I actually had not read this play until auditioning for it. Maybe it was that I read it at 2 a.m. but my first thought after reading it was, “Holy shit, this woman belongs to the 21st century.” She is so unbelievably contemporary. She’s crude, smart, sexy, cynical (or tries to be) — and her story is one of Shakespeare’s most relevant to today’s culture of misogyny. This is also a play where Shakespeare poses a lot of problems/questions and doesn’t really give you many answers. You’re pretty much on your own — luckily this play in particular just begs interpretation. I’m actually grateful that Cressida is played so seldom. It’s really given me the opportunity to define her for myself.

Cressida shows a very different spirit than most of Shak’s lovers, maybe one more open to interpretation. How would you describe her relationships with her uncle, Troilus, and Diomedes? How do you envision her inner life over the arc of the play?

Here’s the thing. Cressida’s dad defected to the Greek side (She’s a Trojan) years ago and she has basically been raised by her very dirty, very outspoken, and very bawdy uncle. As a result, you have a woman who is equally bawdy, equally outspoken and easily the smartest person in every scene. She has no real social standing, which gives her a lot more freedom than most of Shakespeare’s other heroines — and she uses that freedom. She is acutely self-aware, but also struggling to define herself in this very masculine world. I feel like her uncle has raised her with all of these warnings about men, and so she tries to project this cynical, hardened façade, but is actually this very innocent, intelligent young woman struggling to find her place in the world, and in love.

Mendes as Cressida with John Glover (c)
and Andrew Burnap (l)
In Shakespeare’s era, “as false as Cressida” was a sexist cliché about women’s infidelity. How does her role in the story address that cliché? Is there room for its ironic subversion in modern times?

I actually believe that what Shakespeare has written is very much in defense of Cressida. And I honestly have some real difficulties understanding how the few productions that have been done of Troilus and Cressida have been so damning of her. The timing of this production is so perfect, what with the Brock Turner case and the conversation this country is having about our rape culture. Cressida is forced into an impossible decision — she does what she does to survive. She is in no way, the ‘inconstant woman.’

Can you tell us about the other women in T&C’s cast? You, Nneka Okafor, and Tala Ashe are a racially and culturally diverse trio, and (unlike Taming earlier this summer) the three of you are a minority gender-wise too. Do you think those identities play into the production’s depictions of women?

Absolutely. The women in this play all have one thing in common: they are consistently devalued and silenced. I think Dan purposefully cast only men in the ensemble. The women are so vastly outnumbered that there is this sense that they may, at any time, be swallowed whole. And I think, metaphorically, they are.

You’re working closely with John Glover again! How would you describe your chemistry together? What have you picked up from him here and in Much Ado? And how do Cressida and Pandarus mirror and distort Hero and her father?

John! Oh I could go on and on about my love for John Glover. He is a master of play. Sharing a stage with him is not only wickedly fun, but also immensely educational. He has an ease with the language that just floors me. Playing his daughter Hero, though, was a very different task from playing his niece Cressida. Mostly because Hero and Cressida are about as different as you can get. In Much Ado you have a dutiful, sweet, almost repressive father-daughter relationship. In our production of Troilus and Cressida, Pandarus has all but raised Cressida, but not at all as a Hero. They behave as contemporaries (whether or not that may be the reality) — they mock and tease each other mercilessly, constantly trying to one-up each other.

Mendes as Hero with Lily Rabe's Beatrice
in 2014's Much Ado
In our conversation about Much Ado, you mentioned that the Delacorte’s environment & thrust stage forced you to be “smarter & more aware” of your acting choices. What strategies will you revisit this time around? Anything you’ll do differently?

My vocal work in this show is very different. Hero was in many ways a kind of woman-child. Cressida is a woman in every regard. She is a survivor and a force of nature. Because of this my pre show vocal warm-ups have changed. There is also the difference of period vs. contemporary costumes. I have a lot more freedom in this production. It is so nice not having to speak Shakespeare in a corset.

Also last time around, you mentioned wanting to play Juliet and Perdita. Have you had those chances yet? or any other Shakespearean or classical roles you’ve played in the last two years? Do you have any Shakespearean dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I’ve got the Cressida bug. Now, instead of Juliet and Perdita, I’m hankering to play Rosalind and Lady M. I'm entering a period in my life where the appeal of playing teenagers has pretty much disappeared.


The Public Theater's free Shakespeare in the Park stages Troilus and Cressida from July 19 to August 14 at the Delacorte in Central Park. Tickets are free.


headshot  Hannah Sherman
photos #2 & 3  Joan Marcus

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