Review: “Imogen Says Nothing” at the Yale Repertory Theatre

Tara Kennedy

OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

“I love Shakespeare, but the white male canon of literature can stand to be hijacked by a wild and wooly feminist re-telling of our story. I am pretty sure he can handle it.” 
-Playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil on “Imogen Says Nothing”

Imogen is a Shakespeare character that you’ve probably never heard of. She is a voiceless player in “Much Ado About Nothing,” mentioned as Leonato of Messina’s wife, only written in the First Folio and a few other early printings of the play. Then she disappears, only to become a footnote in most editions of Shakespeare’s work. She is made absent: a ghost character banished to the margins of the page.

Playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil mulled on that absenteeism and combined it with other elements she discovered while visiting Yale University’s campus during the Shakespeare at Yale’ celebration in 2012: Beinecke Library’s exhibit, “Remembering Shakespeare,” Yale Center for British Art’s exhibit, “Making History,” and the catacombic bookstacks of Sterling Memorial Library where “the librarians sent [the playwright] to one of those weird half-floors where you feel like everyone’s forgotten about you.” These elements gelled into her play, “Imogen Says Nothing,” the title taken from Ms. Kapil’s mishearing of one of Beatrice’s lines, “the one is like an image and says nothing.” 

Historical context is important in this history-re-imagined work; it is based in Elizabethan-era fact, so being familiar with some of this is helpful. I’ll help you along:

1)    In Shakespeare’s time, all roles were played by men; no women tread the boards. Was this a reason of law, or a reason of circumstance? Until recently, it was accepted as a law banning them from performing. So, the basis remains unclear. 

2)    Shakespeare’s main competition for entertainment would have been bear-baiting, a barbaric practice where a bear is chained up in an arena, wildly trying to defend itself while being attacked by dogs, and sometimes whipped. 

3)    A map printed of the Wiltshire region of England around 1578 by Christopher Saxton left out the town of North Burcombe, which instead was replaced with the name “Quaere,” the Latin term for query. It was most likely a note from the mapmaker to look up the town’s name at a later date, rather than a re-naming of the town. This same map was reproduced in John Speer’s work “The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine.” The mistake stuck for about 145 years.

So, what happens when one once has a place and then all is erased?  To paraphrase another English playwright, William Congreve, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” 

Imogen (Ashlie Atkinson) comes upon a pair of Shakespeare actors, John Heminges (Christopher Ryan Grant) and Henry Condell (Hubert Point-Du Jour). She is looking for “The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain” because she wants to know why her town of North Burcombe has vanished and is now Quaere. The actors bring Imogen to the others in the troupe who agree to take her on to be a maid. Suddenly, she is thrust upon the stage in an effort to keep a drunken Leonato of Messina upright. Imogen is immediately taken with the transforming effects of being on stage and the importance of being written into the play for posterity. She pleads her case to Will (Daisuke Tsuji) – as in William Shakespeare -  who does not see the need to keep the character in the play; to him it was simply a last-minute addition to keep the play going. To Imogen, it was in order to make her invisible, like her vanished town name. Couple this with the fact that Imogen is really a bear that escaped from a bear-baiting troupe, and you have a tale about loss, oppression, and one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies. 

While this is dubbed as a comedy and a hijacking of history, there is obvious tragedy behind the main themes of this play. Yet, the ending provides a sense of liberation for the oppressed: when Henry throws the repressed a bone by putting Imogen back into “Much Ado” in the First Folio printing, Imogen still rises up and takes back what is rightfully hers: her personhood, her name, her right to exist.  

Ms. Atkinson’s performance is exceptional. Her ability to go from ferocious savage to a mesmerized child to a soulfully sad woman is incredible; the role demands are enormous and Ms. Atkinson seizes them with a snarl and a roar. It is a tour de force performance.  

Most of the other actors played multiple roles and all did an excellent job, especially those who portrayed the bears. Thom Sesma’s older, blind bear, Henry Hanks, portrays a wise soothsayer, predicting the rise of Imogen; Ricardo Davila and Christopher Geary’s Fluffies (the young cubs) was a welcome respite from some of the darker moments of the play.  I also enjoyed Zenzi Williams’ Anna Roos, maid to Queen Anne, who wants to know what happened to Imogen when the troupe comes to the Queen’s court to perform “Much Ado.” 

Claire DeLiso’s set design resembles towering structures of the leaden anatomy of stained-glass windows, serving also as cages for the bears. It also reminds the audience of the persecuted and the nameless.  David Weiner’s lighting design utilizes halide low-wattage lights on stage to give the presence of candlelight. 

What I loved was Imogen’s revelation about the transformation of the theatrical experience; she believes it is the way to freedom. While she might believe it on a simpler level (she is after all a bear), it symbolizes the power of the theatre to transport and transform.  Another level of rebellion that was subtly presented here: the cast was made up of people of different ethnicities, another great way to stick it to the male white canon. 

Photo: Ashlie Atkinson and the cast of Imogen Says Nothing by Aditi Brennan Kapil, directed by Laurie Woolery. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2017.