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

Friday, July 22, 2016

Women on Shakespeare: Rachel Pickup as Portia

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 #12 in my interview series, Women on Shakespeare. I'm talking with the women who produce and perform Shak and related work in New York.

The Lincoln Center Festival hosts Shakespeare's Globe on another visit to Manhattan. The show's Merchant of Venice, and Rachel Pickup plays Portia to Jonathan Pryce's Shylock. She's an English actress who spent a season with the RSC, and several more years around the UK, before she moved to America. Her shrewd Goneril, plus chemistry with her Regan (Bianca Amato), made her stand out in '14's Lear at Theatre for a New Audience. I emailed with Rachel about the complexities and challenges of Portia.

Thanks for talking with me, Rachel. In rehearsing and playing Portia in London and New York, what have you discovered about her?

I confess I had never really thought much about The Merchant of Venice before I came to do it last year, so my preconception about Portia was probably the same as many people’s. I knew she said, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” so I had assumed she herself was full of mercy. If I am honest I think I thought she was pure goodness. Foolish of me, as Shakespeare is never so simplistic, but I thought she was the romantic lovely princess. She is not. She has many of those ‘young lover’ qualities: intelligence, passion, sometimes compassion, selfishness, (often selfishness), but also entitlement, confidence sometimes even bordering on arrogance. That has surprised me.

But the most fascinating thing has been how someone [who] is able to say that speech about mercy can then behave in quite a cruel way. However you justify the cruelty, she is nevertheless distinctly lacking in mercy in the way she treats Shylock and Jessica and two of her suitors. She is certainly not wholly lovely in how she behaves, and that has been a fascinating journey of discovery. I have a whole other play going on in my head when myself and Nerissa return from the court scene to Belmont. But the play ends where it ends so that sequel is for another time.

What are Portia's finest qualities, and her worst ones?

She is super-smart and passionate, and magnificently brave and strong, and ahead of her time, and she has the capacity to learn. But she is capable of cruelty, she is selfish, and, most devastatingly, she is a racist. She is a complex woman. She is a flawed human being. She is a product of her time, her environment, so alas, she is, frankly, racist. It has been hard to embrace that, but it is important to, especially because of these times that we are living in. It is sadly far too current!

What knots did the playwright leave for you to untangle?

Many! So many little plot details which we as a company had to address when we were first going thru the play. Simple things like, how long have I been going through the casket trial? Do I know which casket contains my picture? When did I meet Bassanio and, if we both fell in love at first sight, why did we not get together when my father was alive? Then of course myself and Nerissa dressing up as men and going to court. How do we do that in the time allotted? And get back to Belmont so fast? How is it that my cousin happens to be the Doctor of Law expected in court, and that I can be instructed in the ways of the law in the short time before travelling to Venice? All of these things and so many more. I could go on and on — and I think you almost always can in Shakespeare. We can find justification for all of the these things though, and it is vital that we as a company come to an agreement on why we do what we do and when.

Do you think an audience gets all that thought you've put in?

Oftentimes an audience won’t even consider these problems. The brilliance of Shakespeare is the way he forces you to jump in and just — believe! It is like how we are when we are children. There is a fairy tale element to this play — to many of his [plays] — and so long as we know why we are doing what we are doing, I think an audience will. Conviction is all!

Merchant addresses religion in volatile ways, and the show’s effect depends heavily on Portia’s argument in court. What are your thoughts on her argument about mercy?

I answered that to some degree in my first question but to further it. She is of course utterly brilliant in what she says. What you realise, when you really listen to the whole trial scene many times, is that the Doge and everyone else keeps saying to Shylock, “have mercy”, “everyone expects mercy”. But it is an assumption we all make, that a person would be merciful — nobody actually stops to say why? Portia is astounded by the fact that Shylock has to actually ask the question, “On what compulsion must I [be merciful], tell me that?” Of course one should not have to ask, but he does, so she simply answers. It starts as a simple answer, but Shylock does not respond nor does he seem convinced, so she is forced to qualify her initial simple answer and expand on it. And I think the shock of having to explain this basic human concept of mercy allows her to get somewhat carried away — not entirely, she has her feet on the ground — but I think during that speech Portia has a deep, new learning herself. [sic]

What does she learn?

She grows up somewhat in the mercy speech. She herself has not always been merciful, she has not always been kind, she has never been outside of her cloistered and “golden” palace of Belmont and has not known the world. Now here she is in the ugly real world of Venice and it is a coming-of-age.

What about her ‘winning’ argument about flesh but no blood?

The most brilliant move a lawyer could come up with - and she does so in the moment — in our production anyway! It is genius and spot on! I love her for it! I love it!

By contrast, the casket scenes make Portia silent, but she still controls the situation. How do you animate her silence and formal responses to her suitors?

I am interested that you think she controls the situation. In our production she does not. We felt that it was more dramatic for us not to know which casket contained which “prize” so we are at the ‘mercy’ of fate in those scenes and she does not control it. She prays to the Gods! And she wishes she could “teach Bassanio how to choose right” but alas she is one who also obeys the law and her father’s will so she will not ever cheat or lie or “be foresworn”!

I just need to listen to the others on stage. Morocco and Aragon, our actors, are so brilliant and so 'in' it that I don’t need to think about how I animate anything. I listen to what they are saying and I react accordingly, as do Nerissa and Balthazar. You should never really have to think about how you are animating a scene if you are listening — words or no words.

How does she make her choice (for Bassanio)?

We discussed Bassanio’s and my backstory and decided we had met a few months ago at one of Belmont’s many balls—we had barely spoken but we fell in love. Again, there are fairy tale elements but you can fall in love at first sight, people do all the time so… it was not a choice is what I am saying, we were ‘meant to be’! I like to believe in that!

Talking about Shakespeare more generally, what’s your perspective on his roles for women?

There are not enough of them, that is for sure. He writes many wonderful women though, and I love that for the most part they are strong. They are often the ones who sort out the problems, or take the risks. Juliet is way more interesting than Romeo, Portia is braver than Bassanio, Rosalind intensely more fabulous than Orlando, etc. etc. But, obvious to say, they are often second fiddle to the men. Where in Shakespeare are the Hamlets, the Lears, the many Richards or Henry’s or Iagos for the women? They are just so few and far between, however wonderful those that are there areHaving said that, the ones that are brilliant are truly majestically so, and I feel incredibly lucky to have played so many of them.

Are there any you don't like?

The only female semi-leading role that I find a little limp is Hero in Much Ado. She is a bit insipid, I am glad I was never offered that part.

Pickup as Goneril opposite Michael Pennington's Lear
at Theatre for a New Audience, 2014
Is there anything in Shakespeare's plays that’s beyond salvaging?

Interesting, never thought of it in that way? “salvaging”?!!? I don’t think so, no — not that I know every single play intimately, by any means. But he is so brilliant that even in some of the more flawed plays there are always moments/speeches that take your breath away. I think any good director who is excited by any given play will then do something with it to make it ‘salvageable’ as you say — or they will cut any of the dross — not a bad thing to do sometimes!

I mean anything that can never work onstage, no matter how ironically it's played.

I am not a fan of all the “Poor Tom” stuff in King Lear — it goes on for far too long. Many don’t agree with me of course, but I think it is impossible to sustain that for quite as long as Shakespeare writes it. I am afraid I tend to tune out! If I direct Lear, I will cut a lot of that!

Do you have any particular Shakespearean roles you’d still love to play? Any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

So many! All the obvious ones and sure — I always wanted to play Richard the 2nd and Hamlet and King Lear and Edmund and all those meaty parts. But as I get older I do tend to think let the men play the men and the women the women… perhaps that is very boring of me. If I were offered King Lear I would say yes in a heartbeat!


Shakespeare's Globe and Lincoln Center Festival's The Merchant of Venice runs from July 20 to 24 in Jazz at Lincoln Center. Tickets are $45-150.


headshot  Scott Marshall
photos #2 & 3  Manuel Harlan
photo #4  Carol Rosegg