In a moment in which a search of “LGBT” on Whitehouse.gov returns a message of “no results found,” a Yale Repertory Theatre play about erasure roars to be heard.
In “Imogen Says Nothing,” playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil empowers the formerly wordless Shakespearean character of Imogen to claim her place in history. Directed by Laurie Woolery, the play hijacks the unexplained narrative of Imogen, a character in “Much Ado About Nothing,” and explores how she unexpectedly finds herself onstage at the debut of one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Kapil received a commission from the Yale Rep in 2011, and the play’s development has thrived thanks to the theater’s scope, scale and resources.
“If anyone had the audiences that have classical awareness and a contemporary investigative curiosity, it would be [Yale],” Kapil said.
As a young actress, Kapil performed as Imogen, wife of Leonato and mother of Hero, in a college production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Imogen only appears in a few stage directions in the quarto and the first two folios of Shakespeare’s play. Scholars speculated that her appearance was likely due to an error in proofreading, and the character is largely removed from modern editions. During Kapil’s college production, one of the play’s primary characters delivered the line “the one is like an image, and says nothing,” but Kapil misheard “Imogen says nothing.” Kapil said that in that moment, she could only think of Imogen.
Kapil went on to become an actress, director and playwright, but the memory of Imogen’s universe remained pressing. Upon receiving the commission, she already had the title of her piece decided. Still, Kapil said she navigated a “vortex of soul-searching” to produce the current work as is.
Yale played its own role in this creative process. In building the playwright’s residency in New Haven, the dramaturgical team connected Kapil to Yale theatrical and Elizabethan scholars alike. Furthermore, the Yale Rep curated her experience around the events of Shakespeare at Yale, a “multi-venued celebration” in spring 2012 that highlighted the University’s resources regarding Shakespeare.
At the festival, Kapil saw Liz Diamond’s production of “The Winter’s Tale” at the Yale Rep, witnessed Shakespeare’s folios on display in the Beinecke and took direct inspiration from an exhibition of maps at the Yale Center for British Art.
“Because Aditi had inspiration that was based on a very specific historical period, we thought it was great to leverage the resources of Yale University,” said Amy Boratko DRA ’06, dramaturg for “Imogen Says Nothing.”
Through an imaginative script laced with metaphor and meat, Kapil investigates the removal of voices from the theatrical and social cannon and the consequences of that forced absence.
Through many drafts, the story of bears abused for Elizabethan sport that Kapil had obsessed over in Sterling Memorial Library entered the play: Imogen became a bear who passes for a human being. Actress Ashlie Atkinson, who plays Imogen, said that when she received a character breakdown from her agent before auditioning for the role, she was immediately enraptured.
“I got a real sense that [Imogen] comes in and simply by being herself and asserting what comes naturally to her to assert, she upends everything,” Atkinson said. “This sort of bull in a china shop approach to history, I guess, or ‘bear in a china shop.’”
Atkinson said the role of Imogen is unlike any other character she has ever explored before. To portray the six bears featured in the story, Atkinson said she and her castmates endeavored to understand the physicality of their individual bears through a combination of embodied research and watching many YouTube videos of grizzlies. However, the role also requires that Atkinson constantly contemplate and subvert gender constructs, discover a pure sense of joy each night and personally grapple with the sociopolitical relevance of the story.
“Imogen” opened for previews Jan. 20, the night of Trump’s inauguration, and has offered its creative team and audiences a tangible response to the inauguration. However, Boratko notes the play was commissioned years before the nation was even facing this election. She added that the timeline of this production serves as a reminder that “erasure” is not a new reality or fear for minority communities, for women, for the poor, for queer persons and for the disabled. The new fear that “Imogen Says Nothing” confronts, according to Kapil, is the fear that contemporary erasers should feel of consequence, as the silenced will not remain silent for long.
“In this moment, we are roaring, we are making noise. That is what we are doing with our art,” Kapil said.
“Imogen Says Nothing” will be running at the Yale Rep until Feb. 11.