Imogen, Pointless Theatre’s adaptation of Cymbeline, places one of Shakespeare’s most confusing heroines at the center of a battle for her independence. As in Cymbeline, Imogen has to contend with a mean-spirited father, an evil stepmother, a sleazy villain, and a murderous husband. The world of ancient Britain seems to have it out for Imogen – but she doesn’t falter. For the most part, neither does Pointless Theatre’s show, which uses music, puppetry, and gorgeous lighting and costumes to put on a rollicking spectacle helmed by women. It’s a must-see entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
Imogen is less an adaptation and more an abridged version of Cymbeline, which is the “everything and the kitchen sink” of Shakespeare tropes. Tyrannical king? Check. Cross-dressing heroine? Check. Star-crossed lovers? Check. A war, a ghost with an agenda, and some light kidnapping? Check for all three. For centuries, theaters have struggled to stage Cymbeline because its plot hangs by such a thin string of logic. Director (and adapter) Charlie Marie McGrath and her cast overcome that challenge by diving headfirst into the show’s tropes, exaggerating both the silliness and the terror of a country wracked by war. Through it all, Imogen acts as the show’s anchor.
And she has an awful lot to hold down. Imogen is the princess and heir apparent of Britain, and when the play opens, she’s been secretly married to Leonatus, a courtier. Her father, King Cymbeline, is furious at Imogen for marrying without his permission and banishes Leonatus to Italy. In Italy, Leonatus brags of Imogen’s faithfulness to Iachimo, who bets that he can seduce Imogen. Iachimo then tricks Leonatus into believing he’s done the deed, and Leonatus resolves to kill Imogen for her adultery. Imogen, with the help of Leonatus’ servant Pisanio, flees the court and dresses as a man in order to stay alive. Over and over again, men (and women) try to rob Imogen of her agency, but she refuses to let them.
The technical elements of Imogen are a small miracle. The seemingly simple set is full of trick panels, which, when backlit, allow actors backstage to hold up puppets and act out dreams or flashbacks. The lighting shifts every time an actor has an aside, which lets the audience get inside each character’s head. Two multi-instrumentalists provide phenomenal live music that provides a backdrop to scenes that are danced out rather than acted (the battle scene in the second half has killer choreography). None of these elements ever feel out of sync or unbalanced. That this is a small performance space makes Imogen’s technical aspects all the more impressive.
Three key performances anchor this show. Katelyn Manfre does a superb job as Imogen by balancing the character’s strong will with innocence and good faith in everyone. Acacia Danielson’s Pisanio, whose gender is swapped here, has a quiet, restrained strength that presents the most nuanced take I’ve ever seen on the character. It is Hilary Morrow as both the Queen and Cymbeline who emerges as the show’s most versatile star, though. Morrow sweeps around the stage in a billowing gown, holding a puppet of King Cymbeline. She is equal parts Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland and Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove as the scheming queen, and her excellent puppeteering as Cymbeline shows right away who holds power in the British court.
Mason Catharini’s Lord Caseff also deserves a shout-out. Lord Caseff is a composite character made of a whole slew of lords, but Catharini plays Caseff as if he’d always been a major part of Cymbeline. In addition, Kiernan McGowan does well as Iachimo. The show’s main villain can be a hard character to play since he has no redeeming qualities, so McGowan goes full-throttle on Iachimo’s lecherousness by wearing monster claws and oozing around the stage with a cruel grin.
That Iachimo is played as a literal monster is no accident. Most of the men in Imogen treat the women around them, especially Imogen, like bargaining chips. When Iachimo connives his way into Imogen’s bedroom, he assaults her as she sleeps, dragging his claws across her bare skin. The scene made me physically uncomfortable. He easily convinces Leonatus that Imogen has been unfaithful, and Leonatus – the hero up until this point – then delivers a chilling speech. “There’s no motion/That tends to vice in man but I affirm/It is the woman’s part. Be it lying, note it,/The woman’s; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers;/Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers…” rails Leonatus.
Iachimo is a threat to women, yes, but he is obviously cruel. It is Leonatus, the “noble gentleman” (or, as we might call him now, the “nice guy”), who schemes to murder an innocent woman. The show does an excellent job of hammering this point home throughout the play. When Leonatus delivers that monologue, the lights turn a foreboding red, and Leonatus leaps up on a chair as he screams at the audience.
However, at the most crucial moment – the ending – Imogen does not stick the landing. Scholars and actresses alike have often wondered how to interpret the confusing ending of Cymbeline, in which Imogen, aware of Leonatus’ crimes, forgives him wholeheartedly. Imogen does not try to resolve this point, which feels like a major missed opportunity. The play opens with a half-danced, half-puppeteered scene that summarizes Imogen and Leonatus’ courtship and marriage, so the director had the resources and the talented cast to do the same thing at the end. If Imogen takes Leonatus back without hesitation, what happens to the self-sufficient woman she’s become?
That didn’t stop me from grinning like a kid when the lights went down on the last scene, though. No matter the implications of the ending, Imogen is a romp. It combines stellar performances with energetic puppeteering, dancing, and live music, and provides food for thought on the “right” way (if there is such a thing) to depict a woman’s search for autonomy.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes, including a ten-minute intermission.
Imogen, by Pointless Theatre, plays through February 11 at the Dance Loft – 4618 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20011. You can purchase tickets online. The show is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
Charlie Marie McGrath is the Directing Fellow at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC. An SDC Associate, she was awarded an Observership on Broadway in 2013, and was a Finalist for their Geilgud Fellowship in 2015. She’s an alumnus of Northwestern University, AMDA (NY), and the Midsummer in Oxford Program. She was co-founder and producing resident director of Proud Kate Theatre Project, a theatrical incubator for emerging female designers and performers. She is a proud member of Directors Lab North and numerous literary panels nation-wide, from the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center to the Bay Area Playwrights Foundation.