The first time Imogen asks William Shakespeare to write her into Much Ado About Nothing, it isn’t clear if he knows exactly what she means. A hot, nearly-white light falls around her shoulders, highlighting a spray of red hair and two dark, unmoored eyes that sprout from her skull. He laughs, shrugs his shoulders, slouches anew over his parchment, and lifts his quill.
Enter Imogen, he writes innocuously, not fully aware of the fiery and tumultuous world he has set into motion.
That is, a world of insertion and erasure, of women walking into history just to fall through its cracks. A world that finds itself at the center of Aditi Brennan Kapil’s premiere of Imogen Says Nothing, on at the Yale Repertory Theatre from now through Feb. 11.
With an extraordinary and unexpected protagonist (actor Ashlie Atkinson) at its center, the play asks the audience to reconsider the consequences of human absence, specifically the bodies that have disappeared from the creative canon.
Or in Kapil’s words, to ask: What is the natural order of things, and what happens when it gets shaken up?
The work, a commission by the Yale Repertory Theatre that Kapil began in 2011, is a blessed meeting of worlds. In one world is Shakespeare and his legacy. In another, feminism and its discontents. In a third, magic, shape-shifting and metaphor.
When the curtain opens on the year 1598, playwright William Shakespeare (Daisuke Tsuji) is working on his first draft of Much Ado About Nothing in a small Shoreditch theater, where his acting troupe The King’s Men is set to perform. Their apprentice/whore, Imogen of Quare, is helping out after running away from her home, and joining them. Everything is ready to go. Actors are suiting up in their costumes and the audience is beginning to trickle in from London. Young Shakespeare shakes off his jitters.
But the evening has other plans: King’s Men player John Heminges (Christopher Ryan Grant) is too drunk to perform on his own, and Imogen must prop him up on stage, stepping in as his character’s wife. It’s not the troupe’s first choice: As a woman, her onstage presence is technically illegal. But Shakespeare assumes that she — hulking frame, rounded shoulders, and a nose that flares out on angry breaths — will pass as a man, playing a large, mute woman who enters and exits as she’s needed.
And there, laughing over an early version of the play, Shakespeare writes in Imogen, humoring her after a performance she has helped pull off. He does so in jest, and with no intention of memorializing her in the draft. But the nascent history of printing and intellectual copyright have other ideas. At least, for a while.
What follows, as Imogen wages an upstream battle with history, is a beautiful, funny, and chilling exploration of the omissions with which traditional “artistry” has saddled us. Collapsing literal and conceptual worlds with the text of Shakespeare’s Much Ado and A Winter’s Tale, Kapil conjures a sort of creative fury that simmers, rises, and then explodes right on time. In particular, her use of A Winter’s Tale’s mystifying “Exit, pursued by a bear” as a narrative device charges into unexpected territory, hitting hard as Imogen turns the words over in her mind, and then pushes their limits.
As it tiptoes between history and her hopeful revisionists — Shakespeare did write and then omit a woman from Much Ado, and Imogen’s absent home of Quare was based on an actual typo in a map that Kapil saw at the Yale Center for British Art — Imogen Says Nothing is also deeply timely, urging the audience to action at its most affecting points. Imogen’s beginnings in an unmarked city, her fixation with the printed word, her isolation among members of the troupe are instantly relatable: She wants to be remembered for who and what she is, and will exact revenge on those who prevent it. When she watches the slow death of a carnival bear with a frozen, horrified look on her face, when she is ridiculed for her curiosity, when she herself is baited and tied, when she transitions into an animal language, you can feel the pressure building in your chest.
This is not just about women who have been left out of the canon. Nor is it just a poetic rebuttal to the overwhelming male-ness of Western history. It’s also about the whitewashing on feminism and the LGBT movement. The plight of minorities, undocumented immigrants, and refugees under President Donald Trump. And the bear-baiting tether, ever shorter, with which those in power wish to exert their control.
The play — in Kapil’s words, “a purposeful re-taking and re-mythologizing” of a long-celebrated piece — triumphs not only because of its script, but its strong company and set and sound design, both of which themselves become characters by the end of the 220-minute show. As Imogen, Atkinson is the personification of fury, fear, and a little devastation, completely engaging the audience from her first scene to her last. No one quite matches her mastery, but several members get close: Tsuji is a neurotic, difficult, but lovable Shakespeare, Tom Sesma is explosive as Harry Hunks, and Hubert Pont-du Jour, Ricardo Davila, Christopher Geary and Grant carry the dialogue onto which, like the play’s Elizabethan scaffolding, Imogen must climb to reach her point of departure. Ben Horner, too, is perfect as the devious Crier who tries to bring Imogen down, unveiling another layer in just how much she is up against.
Performing against a backdrop of “boards and air” that comprise their theater spaces and some inventive digital design, screen projections, and shadow play, the actors bring Imogen’s struggle to life. This is your call to arms, she seems to say at the end, flipping Shakespeare’s language to reveal its dirty underbelly. Are you going to be forgotten, or are you going to stand up, and fight?
Imogen Says Nothing runs through Feb. 11 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St. For times and ticket information, click here.