The School of Music, Theater and Dance production of Imogen Says Nothing this past weekend was ferociously compelling. The play, written by Aditi Brennan Kapil, imagines the story of Imogen, a character listed in an early manuscript of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing who has no voice and appears to be a printing mistake. In Kapil’s absurdist revisionary take, Imogen (Brynn Aaronson) is a bear passing as a human who travels to London to request that her village’s name be restored from “Quaere” to North Burcombe on a map of the Theatre of the Great British Empire. Instead of the mapmaker, Imogen finds the literal theater in which William Shakespeare works. What follows is a creative, satirical critique of the misrepresentation, silence, and absence of marginalized identities in written word.
My favorite element of the production was Imogen’s unapologetic, fierce presence. Imogen lumbers, she growls, she is blunt and direct and makes demands. In Imogen’s character, I saw the functioning of “pariah femininity,” a term coined by feminist scholar Mimi Schippers: a form of femininity which is constructed in opposition to traditional, “hegemonic femininity” (forms of femininity which uphold the gender order/patriarchy) and characterized by stereotypical forms of masculinity like authority, physicality and non-compliance made reprehensible by their female embodiment.
Throughout the play, characters repeat the phrase: “It’s a frightful thing, to be absent.” Many elements bring forward the idea of absence in the play. Quaere, the village Imogen comes from, is a play on the Latin word for query, suggesting that the mapmaker simply neglected to return to the location and find out its name. This brings to the fore the experience of people from lands which are constantly, often intentionally, overlooked, and the importance of being seen. There is an ongoing conversation which picks up in different forms throughout the play, about the tyranny of “ink,” and the significance and permanence of what is laid down in ink. Imogen struggles with William Shakespeare to be eternalized in the script of Much Ado About Nothing for her appearance in the first act of the play. In the end, her friend and client Henry Condell (Rohan Maletira) re-writes Imogen’s name into the play out of a sense of guilt, but as Kapil makes abundantly clear in the final scene of the play, his choice is not the point. Imogen’s subjectivity is the focal point of the play, and she reclaims her personhood (bearhood?) by meting out justice upon the men who tried to erase her.