Ben Cole as Imogen

Here’s a concept: A man playing a woman who dresses up as a man: playing Imogen in an all-male production of Cymbeline.

Okay, so last time I checked I was a man. (Pause) Yep, still a man. So, how did I come to start working on playing one of Shakespeare’s most challenging female heroines? Well, it all goes back to playing dress-up as a kid. With two older sisters and parents who were into encouraging imagination I had lots of opportunity to play dress-up in dresses and learn to feel comfortable making a fool out of myself.

Unfortunately, Imogen is no fool. She, like most Shakespeare characters, is a multi-dimensional person deeply committed to the pursuit of her desires, and flabbergasted at her opposition while unwilling to passively accept any changes in her situation. She takes action to try and change her misfortunes. Things don’t just happen to her; the complex web of real people making real choices influences her tragedies and redemptions.

Imogen goes from marrying the lower-class, underdog, love-of-her-life, only to have the marriage scorned by her father. Her evil step-mother, in true Princess fairy tale style, secretly plots to kill Imogen or take control of the throne by ignoring the fact that Imogen is already married and pairing her up with Imogen’s dunce step-brother Cloten. As if dealing with a grouchy dad, a psychopathic step-mom, and a doofus step-brother trying to seduce you weren’t bad enough, Imogen’s husband is banished and bets that no one can break her loyalty to him. So, of course, some guy in a bar takes up this bet and travels to Britain to try and seduce Imogen, too. Even though Imogen “passes” the test, like any jealous guy, her husband gets the facts wrong and decides Imogen needs to die for her unfaithfulness. Imogen’s only friend, her husband’s servant, is now cast to carry out the revenge murder.

In the words of Tammy Wynette, “sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.”

So, of course, I get to dress up as a man to try and better my situation. Then I get to be a man, (yep, still a man) playing a woman who dresses up as a man. To make matters more hysterical, coincidentally, everyone is even MORE attracted to Imogen when she’s a man!

That’s the plot, at least from my character’s perspective. Kind of overly complex for Shakespeare’s attempt at a fairy tale. It’s no wonder that scholars are confused what to categorize this play as. In it’s first publication, the first folio of 1623, the play is titled The Tragedie of Cymbeline. Most of the characters are happy at the end, so I’m not sure its all that much of a tragedy. But it certainly isn’t a comedy with attempted rape, attempted murder, a beheading, war, and drug induced “likeness of death”. I guess we’ll call it a romance! Hmm. That’s a little unsatisfactory for me. But then again, I am playing the woman… I suppose I can accept the term more when defined like this: “Romances are impossible fictions woven around real people.”

As my favorite of current Shakespeare publications, the Arden, suggests: “The play presents a conflict between the tendency to escape from everyday life and the tendency to remain in it, and moves towards a repose achieved in spite of violence, the brutal action which constitutes the substratum of experience, ending with a suggestion of rebirth, in a static tableaux from which previous suggestions of savage farce have been carefully obliterated.” Wow! What a sentence. Yes, I feel the desire to escape life now and again. Life can be a real mess. And yes, I desperately want to remain in life, despite that half tragic, half farce it often appears to be.

So perhaps the Renaissance Humanist perspective of life can give me a better clue to how I might play the role of Imogen, or perhaps give myself, and the audience a clue as to how this dark fairy tale might apply to all our lives today. As one internet history of Renaissance Humanism suggests: “The ideal life was no longer a monastic escape from society, but a full participation in rich and varied human relationships.”

This is what life is. We can no longer escape society. We are in a global society full of new challenges everyday. It is only through experiencing new perspectives, discovering others ideas, and creating new bonds that we might find compassion with one another. I understand Imogen’s desperation for acceptance at the beginning of the play. Perhaps we all go through her journey, in some way or another, before finding the true hope for a better future surrounded by friends and family.

Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company offers heart-felt shows that may truly reach you in a way you’ve never experienced before. Become a follower, a fan, and change your future. Take the opportunity to see this unique production. Do as Hamlet says: “Ha! Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be but I am pigeon-liver’d!”

That sounds like a great quote for a t-shirt. Hey out there, please comment on this blog. Let me know that you’re listening, or that you’re interested in seeing the show, or that you have further insight into Shakespeare’s dramatic works.