Monday, October 9, 2017

Women on Shakespeare: Helen Cespedes on Rosalind

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

This autumn, director Jessica Bauman explores what As You Like It says about exile and refugees, in her retitled Arden/EverywhereI'll have an interview with her next week, but meanwhile, I emailed with the production's Rosalind, Helen Cespedes. Ms. Cespedes, a recent Juilliard grad, played a delightful Lady Teazle in Red Bull's School for Scandal last season, holding her own opposite veterans Dana Ivey and Frances Barber.


Let’s start with Rosalind. What have you discovered about her that you find fascinating?

I should start by saying that I somehow managed to go through drama school and my professional career so far never seeing or really reading As You Like It. I know! Crazy! But kind of an amazing treat to approach such an iconic role/play without the baggage of other performances and productions in my head. So, as I began reading and investigating the role and the story, I was struck by Rosalind’s aggressiveness. She goes from the heartbreak and paralysis of her father’s banishment and then her own to becoming really activated, once in man’s clothing.

Then I wondered: why does she do what she does? Why doesn’t she go find her father as soon as she gets to Arden? Why does she manipulate Orlando for three quarters of the play? And, when she does find her father (she mentions “I met with the Duke yesterday and had much question with him”) why does she not reveal herself to both him and Orlando? These are questions I imagine every production of this play has wrestled with.

How did you and Jessica answer those questions?

In some ways, our lens into the play (imagining Arden as the land of displaced people where exiles and refugees find shelter) helps. The stakes of banishment are real. She truly does think she will be safer disguised as a man. There are actual accounts of refugee women disguising themselves as men in order to be safer from sexual assault. Furthermore, her father left her behind. Perhaps she has conflicted feelings about him. Perhaps she feels abandoned by him, or that he put his cause before his family. This would complicate an easy reunion. It can also explain the need to hide behind her disguise with Orlando and put his devotion to the test. She is looking for someone she can rely on. Of course, the one person she can truly rely on has been there the whole time: Celia, her cousin and best friend through it all.

How does she view and deal with the world that Shakespeare imagines her into?

When she decides to disguise herself as a man, Rosalind says,

“…and in my heart,
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will,
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside.”
I see this as a sort of hardening of her character. She is going to cover up what is vulnerable in herself in order to survive. But with this comes empowerment. As a man in this society, she gets to hold forth a lot more and act as an authority on other people’s business.

The stress of Rosalind’s situation also leads her to be quite prickly and hypocritical. I love this about her. It feels very human that she is flawed and lashes out and tests the boundaries of how insufferable she can be before people won’t put up with it anymore. For example, she berates Phoebe for not immediately accepting Silvius’ love, but then uses some of Phoebe’s own tactics/arguments on Orlando, testing the boundaries of his affection.

Rosalind is one of a type—Shakespeare’s adventurous, crossdressing ingénues. What sets her apart from her sisters in Shakespeare?

As I said, I wasn’t that familiar with this play until working on this production—maybe because I’m not tall (we’ve cut Rosalind’s “I am more than uncommon tall”) I didn’t think I’d play the role and didn’t look at it that closely — but, I have played Viola, another great “pants” role. These two women undergo similar trials — geographical displacement that leads them to dress as men to protect themselves — but they handle this transformation very differently. Viola moves through Illyria like a raw nerve; she is in love with Orsino and Olivia is in love with her, and Viola in turn is wholly reactive to these eccentric outside forces.

Meanwhile, Rosalind seems to me to be totally activated by her transformation. As Ganymede, she starts to call all the shots: purchasing food and shelter for herself, Celia, and Touchstone in Arden, manipulating Orlando, micromanaging Phebe and Silvius.… She is acting on the forces around her rather than reacting to them.

What does she share with roles like Portia, Viola, and Imogen?

I think, in both Viola and Rosalind (and probably in Portia too, not so much in Imogen), presenting themselves to the world as a man allows them special access to society. Suddenly, people listen to them more and care what they have to say. In Rosalind’s case, she is all too happy to impart her wit and wisdom.

Especially in the comedies, an actor gets to play with Elizabethan wit, love poetry and even clowning. How do you handle that range of styles onstage?

Yes, Rosalind does get to show all of these colors and it is glorious… actually, it’s just human and how human beings behave (perhaps not quite as articulately). Often, roles for women can be reduced to archetypes: the virgin and the funny one (or some variation on that). But human beings are clowns, lovers, intellectuals, heros, and villains all at once. I feel like Shakespeare has realized this scope and breadth more in Rosalind than any of his other female characters.

As an actor, I am a kid in a candy store (to use an archetype). Scripts that require all of my brain and all of my heart are exactly what I trained for. Shakespeare’s characters use wit as their currency. It is how they challenge each other, seduce each other, fall in love with each other etc. I had one teacher at Juilliard describe a battle of wits as a card game: if your scene partner uses one word, they have played that card, now you match that card and play another, and so on and so on as you top each other and see who wins. It’s a lot of fun. If only I could be half as clever as any of Shakespeare’s characters in my own life!

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

Overall, I think Shakespeare wrote women better than most contemporary plays do. We don’t allow female characters to be as contradictory as we used to. Even the screwball comedies of the '30s allowed women to turn from tragedy to comedy on a dime. That said, Shakespeare’s women are operating in societies where the constraints on women are much more obvious and visible. But Shakespeare has them pushing up against these boundaries.

There is strength and intellect in many of the female Shakespeare characters who are often depicted as wilting flowers. For example, I recently auditioned to play Ophelia. I had never really investigated that role before, and at first I thought, “ugh what a thankless role: you cry, you sing sad songs while vaguely twitching with madness, and then you die.”

But then I dug into the text… no, no, she is brilliant and activated. She is constrained by the rules of society and the men who get to make choices in her life, but she navigates that with great vitality. I think many directors/actors read the “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown speech” and just play the “woe is me” part, as opposed to investing in the comparison she is making between Hamlet before and Hamlet now. Her best friend and boyfriend has transformed from a poised, brilliant young prince into a rambling, self-destructive, recluse. I didn’t get the part, but I’d love to play it one day!

Overall, I would say that Shakespeare usually gives his female characters the moral high ground, which, one could argue, is a form of misogyny. Don’t make us saints, make us human beings! I suppose that’s one of the reasons I like Rosalind so much. She is not a saint.

Do you have any other Shakespearean roles you’d love to play, or to go back to? Not just the women either—any dream-roles traditionally played by men?

I’d love to play Henry V, and go one that journey from frat boy to leader. To add the list of morally flawed women: I’d love to play Queen Margaret and/or Lady M. I played the Nurse in Drama School, but I’d love to play Juliet (if it’s not too late!). Gosh, all of them. There is so much to be mined in all of them.

Any Shakespeare coming up?

I’m going to play Viola again this spring in a production at Theater For a New Audience directed by Maria Aitken. It will be a wonderful to play both cross-dressing heroines in the matter of a few months.

Arden/Everywhere plays from Oct 8 to Oct 28 at Baruch College in Gramercy Park. Student tickets are $16, general admission $36!

headshot  Ted Ely
photos  Russ Rowland

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