Grin and Bear It

Review of Imogen Says Nothing, Yale Repertory Theatre

Aditi Brennan Kapil’s new play is an unpredictable provocation, a serious comedy about theater and oppression, about identity and creativity, about the “tether” that binds us together and keeps us shackled. In trying to imagine a revisionist Elizabethan world, which includes William Shakespeare as a minor character, Imogen Says Nothing, in its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, presents theater as a spirited and challenged collectivity threatened not only by more vicious entertainments—like bear-baiting—but also by new technologies, such as ink and printing. Actors, like priests confronted by the Lutheran Bible, fear what will happen if folks can just read it for themselves.

 The cast of Imogen Says Nothing (photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast of Imogen Says Nothing (photo: Joan Marcus)

To point up the problems with textual evidence and to take us to a time when a playwright might well distrust the written word, Kapil uses a minor variant in the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s popular comedy Much Ado About Nothing. In one version of the play, the wife of Leonato is named as Imogen or Innogen and, though the character has no lines, she seems to be present and silent while being talked about. This minor wrinkle becomes the stuff of a kind of wish fulfillment. Imogen, a large woman newly come to London, happens upon the troupe Shakespeare is part of and, after she performs a service for the company, gets written into the play as a gesture of her bond with them, which made her an historical anomaly as the only actual woman to trod the stage of the time. Imogen’s first act makes much of the staging of Much Ado and Imogen’s starry-eyed embrace of acting as being “transported.” Imogen’s highly amusing interactions with the colorful troupe—especially Hubert Point-Du Jour as the thoughtful Henry Condell and Christopher Ryan Grant as the generally drunken John Heminges—and a wonderful scene of the actors, now homeless, carrying the boards of the theater to a new location at Bankside, help to make the first act a lively valentine to the theater and its illusions and omissions.

 Burbage (Thom Sesma), Imogen (Ashlie Atkinson), John (Christopher Ryan Grant), Henry (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Alex (Christopher Geary), Nicholas (Ricardo Davila) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Burbage (Thom Sesma), Imogen (Ashlie Atkinson), John (Christopher Ryan Grant), Henry (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Alex (Christopher Geary), Nicholas (Ricardo Davila) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The developments in Act 2, after intermission, take off from a chilling encounter on the way to Bankside: an escaped bear (Zenzi Williams) confronts the company and is dissuaded from attacking by Imogen who is apparently an escaped bear now in human form. While one must take that as one will, the main problem is that it hangs uneasily with Imogen’s charming reason for coming to London, in Act 1: her town—North Burcombe—has appeared on an influential map as “Quaere” (a query) which has made the town become all but invisible. “To be absent is a terrible thing,” Imogen says, and proceeds to be present in text and on stage as an extra character who will then be excised in some texts. That theme of the play—the question of textual authority over actual identity—sort of goes missing itself once the new theme of human vs. bear is sounded.

Now it’s a question of who dances on whose tether, with now and then a sally about the illusion of acting versus the reality of bears putting on shows. The part of the Crier, indelibly enacted by Ben Horner looking like a dandified barbarian, puts showmanship into the bear’s plight. The bears themselves are feelingly enacted by the actors Thom Sesma, who doubles as Richard Burbage, Christopher Ryan Grant, as the acclaimed bear Ned Whiting, and Christopher Geary and Ricardo Dávila who double as “the Fluffies” (or captious young bears) and as the actors—Alexander Cooke and Nicholas Tooley respectively—who play ladies on stage. The bear and actor doubling creates a neat overlay in which humanism animates both actors as bears and actors as actors. The most telling doubling may be that of Daisuke Tsuji, who plays a rather diffident Shakespeare and a threatened Warden of the bears.

 Anna Roos (Zenzi Williams), Burbage (Thom Sesma), Heminges (Christopher Ryan Grant), Shakespeare (Daisuke Tsuji) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anna Roos (Zenzi Williams), Burbage (Thom Sesma), Heminges (Christopher Ryan Grant), Shakespeare (Daisuke Tsuji) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The threats in Act 2 achieve enacted violence and it is then up to Act 3 to put us back on comic footing. This it does rather more wryly than well. We move from the late 1590s in Act 1 and 2 to 1613 and then to 1623 (after Shakespeare’s death) in Act 3. In 1613, the troupe is presented with the fait accompli of a printed version of Much Ado, wielded by Anna Roos (Zenzi Williams), censorious and rather literal-minded ladies’ maid to the Queen, who has commanded a royal performance of that play together with the romance The Winter’s Tale, which of course famously features a bear. The dovetailing of these themes, together with Henry confronting a copy of the map Imogen spoke of, and bearing Will’s posthumous manuscript to the printer’s, and encountering Imogen redux takes us somewhere, for a conclusion, that might well be called “Quaere.”

 John Heminges (Christopher Ryan Grant), Henry Cordell (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Imogen (Ashlie Atkinson) (photo: Joan Marcus)

John Heminges (Christopher Ryan Grant), Henry Cordell (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Imogen (Ashlie Atkinson) (photo: Joan Marcus)

As Imogen, Ashlie Atkinson is strikingly full of a matter-of-factness that gives the actors pause. As a bear passing as a woman, she can be both fearsome and oddly demur. She does seem indeed otherworldly in this world both arcane and familiar. Geary’s comic touches as the bitchy Alex enliven the company and Dávila is endearing as Nick, who is new to the company in Act 1. As Burbage, Sesma shows authority but he really shines as Harry Hunks, the blind and irascible veteran bear. Horner makes the most of the Crier but the role is more device than character. Tsuji’s Shakespeare is deliberately low key, as though Kapil wants to assert that a man who writes so well must have nothing interesting to say in person. Williams comes off detrimentally prim as Anna Roos, when something a bit more jarringly comic would help to lift Act 3.

Point-Du Jour and Grant inhabit their characters so easily they become key to how we feel about the play—they are off-hand, obtuse at times, at times quick, and generally fun to be around. The fun the cast has with the brief Much Ado segments tempts us to be transported, like Imogen, by stagecraft even as we are entertained by the backstage bickering. Kapil’s play and this production’s atmospheric set, lights, costumes and music are certainly capable of transporting us, but all the world is very much the stage in this crafty play.

 

Imogen Says Nothing
The Annotated Life of Imogen of Messina,
last sighted in the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s
Much adoe about Nothing
By Aditi Brennan Kapil
Directed by Laurie Woolery

Scenic Designer: Claire Marie DeLiso; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth; Lighting Designer: David Weiner; Sound Designer: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Projection Designer: Yana Birÿkova; Production Dramaturgs: Amy Boratko, Charles O’Malley; Technical Director: William Hartley; Dialect Coach: Stephne Gabis; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Benjamin Edward Cramer Pfister

Cast: Ashlie Atkinson; Ricardo Dávila; Christopher Geary; Christopher Ryan Grant; Ben Horner; Hubert Point-Du Jour; Thom Sesma; Daisuke Tsuji; Zenzi Williams

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 20-February 11, 2017