Playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil’s new play, Imogen Says Nothing, commissioned by Yale Rep and directed by Laurie Woolery, is original and fanciful and a fresh idea around which to build a play.
It’s particularly meaningful now as millions of women so recently marched worldwide, using their voices to defend gender equality in the belief a new administration threatens to bring us back in time—well, maybe not quite as far back as the early 17th century, when this play takes place.
Let me explain: Imogen was the wife of Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing, who appears infrequently and has no lines. Since women were prohibited from appearing on stage in Shakespeare’s time, Imogen was not only silenced, she was played by a man.
Kapil was performing the role of Imogen in a college production of the Shakespeare classic when the idea came to her to write a play that would giving her silenced character a starring role.
Ashlie Atkinson plays Imogen, a big, dark, brooding, woman constricted not only by her lack of rights as a woman, but by her tight, laced-up Elizabethan dress (courtesy of costume designer Haydee Zelideth, who designed all the show’s fabulous costumes).
After delivering a curious and haunting monologue about watching a dancing bear, Imogen, a truly lost soul, takes off on foot to London from her village of North Burcome, which has been renamed Quare, to demand that her town’s rightful name is restored.
She comes upon a troupe of drunken actors premiering Much Ado About Nothing with none other than Shakespeare (Daisuke Tsuji) among them. The men treat her badly, calling her a fat cow and a whore.
Later Imogen is solicited to hold up Leonato (Christopher Ryan Grant), who is falling over drunk in his scene, even though it’s against the law for women to appear on stage.
This leads to Imogen emerging from her cocoon and carving out an identity, and actually being written into the script—in ink. She takes on a new persona that is untamed and unstoppable. When the troupe comes face to face with an angry bear (Zenzi Williams) that’s captured along with other bears for the ugly sport of bear baiting, she becomes their ally, encouraging them to revolt. Harkening back to her opening monologue, we discover that she’s a bear, too.
This is where the multiple messages and plotlines get muddled. It’s hard to keep track of all of the bears—five in total— (only one in a literal bear costume). The parallel between the plight of Imogen and the bears is overworked. There is a lot going on metaphorically in this production, but not enough empathy-building to allow the audience to relate to the bears. The play is billed as a comedy, but the dark humor is hit or miss.
However, the nonstop action and dialogue is carried by an excellent ensemble cast that’s consistently on their game. Scenic designer Claire Marie DeLiso cleverly creates a gritty, bare-bones setting that in the second act instantaneously turns into an opulent palace interior. David Weiner’s nuanced lighting transforms from cold and eerie to warm and enveloping, depending on the scene. And the shadows of actors behind a screen further enhance the visuals.
The play holds great promise, but needs some reworking to bring it into better focus and clarity, including cutting some of the extraneous scenes, particularly nearing the end of the two hour and 20-minute production (including one intermission).
In an essay written just a few years ago, Rebecca Solnit says, “Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once. Some reappear. Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images is already a victory, already a revolt.”
Although her play takes place more than 400 years ago, I thank Aditi Brennan Kapil for giving Imogen a voice to tell her story and reminding us not to pretend that women’s rights, human rights, aren’t still at risk, here and now in the 21st century.
Imogen Says Nothing is at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven through Feb. 11. Schedule of performances and tickets online at www.yalerep.com or call 203-432-1234.