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Reflections on Imogen in the Wild: Part 1

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Nov 25, 2021 at 10:53 PM in Project News

by Randall Martin

Shakespeare in Yosemite’s spectacular film Imogen in the Wild opens with Debra Ann Byrd, founder of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, singing a haunting version of the traditional Black spiritual song, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” against a bleak rockface. The lyrics of painful isolation and redemptive yearning announce one of the film’s major themes: disconnection from, and regeneration through, wild nature as a source of personal and environmental well-being. Overall, the eco-cinematic message of Imogen in the Wild is of hopeful collaboration for a sustainable future by “deal[ing] with others better” and activating the prophetic spirit of the play’s Jailer: “I would we were all of one mind, and of one mind good.” Those “others” include Mother-Earth entities like trees, rivers, animals, and mountains as well as colonized or marginalized people.  

The Jailer’s words are the film’s penultimate lines, spoken as an epilogue by Sofia Andom in close-up as both Imogen and as a young Black actor playing her first Shakespearian role with tremendous heart. They harken back to Byrd’s dual roles as Imogen’s dead mother and the pioneering African-American foremother who inspires Andom and the entire project. Imogen in the Wild concludes with an acknowledgment of Indigenous land title, spoken jointly by Andom and a Yosemite park ranger (Shelton Johnson). These bookend scenes frame the film’s activist commitment to making (bio)diversity and intersectional justice the cornerstones of environmental equity. 

This is the first of a two-part blog. Here, I’ll concentrate on Imogen in the Wild’s adapted plots and characters from Cymbeline. In my follow-up I’ll appraise the film’s artistic and environmental recreations and achievements.   


Today’s struggle for bio-equity is represented by Imogen in the Wild’s fictional clash between forces of The Town and City and The Wild. The Town, led by Mayor Cymbeline (Dennis Brown), his Lady Macbeth-like second wife, Queenie (Connie Stetson), and her cocky-bastard son Cloten (Chase Brantley), wants to expropriate the nearby Wild (Yosemite National Park) for jobs and profit, represented by "The Deal" with The City's Excavo Inc. The Wild is defended by protesters led by Belarius (Lee Stetson). He has lived in the Park for twenty years after fleeing the corrupt City with Cymbeline’s two young sons Arviragus (Angel Nuñez) and Guiderius (Amber Loper) for their own safety. The emblematic confrontation between Town and Wild environmentalizes and updates the sovereignty dispute between Rome and Britain in Cymbeline.  

Imogen in the Wild’s civic battle is mirrored on a personal level by Cymbeline’s family ruptures (following the second of Cymbeline’s storylines). First, he exiles his adopted son Leo (aka Posthumus Leonatus) after Leo and the Mayor’s daughter Imogen secretly wed in defiance of Queenie’s power-seeking desire for Cloten to marry her. Then, Cymbeline locks up Imogen in her apartment, until she secretly escapes to The Wild with the help of her loyal friend Pisanio (Andrew Perez) in the hope of reuniting with the fugitive Leo. 

Before she escapes, however, Imogen is physically and sexually attacked in her bedroom, while she sleeps, by Queenie’s secret lover Iachimo (played with villainous creepiness by Lisa Wolpe). Iachimo has arrived on false pretences after making a wager with his erstwhile friend Posthumus--the third Shakespearian storyline--while the latter is in hiding from Cymbeline. Iachimo boasts he can sleep with Imogen and prove it, namely, by stealing tokens such as a bracelet given to her by Posthumus in exchange for her own ring, and a description of a crimson mole on her breast. Posthumus too quickly believes these signs of Imogen’s alleged adultery, and loses his wager of Imogen’s ring to Iachimo.

Played by the talented composer, singer, and acoustic guitar player Tonatiuh Dwayne Newbold, Posthumus laments his betrayal by women in a blues complaint after he has fled to the forest (I’ll say more about the film’s brilliant range of original music in my second blog).     


The pre-Queenie happiness of Cymbeline’s family was grounded in their close child-and-parent attachments to The Wild. Flashbacks recur of Imogen and Leo as kids running and playing with their smiling dad on forest paths. The Wild was their second mother and authentic home. As the film’s narrator (the voice of Cymbeline) says at one point, this is a story about The Town remembering its dependency on The Wild, as the vital but repeatedly abused ground of human flourishing. 

The Wild remains Imogen’s existential refuge, as she recalls in further flashbacks to her golden times with Leo as lovers in Yosemite. She clings to those memories for comfort and resolution after the headless body of Cloten, disguised in Leo’s clothes, is discovered by Guiderius. Cloten, in this version, has been pursuing Imogen in revenge but dies falling from a tree, and is partially eaten by a bear offscreen. Imogen flees in horror at the sight of the body to search for her husband’s missing head.

Rather than being adopted by the compassionate Roman general Lucius, as the pivotal action of Cymbeline has it, seeks out the lodge of the forest Rangers (aka "the Wild Haven"). The Rangers help her to heal, and positively redirect her trauma towards joining the defenders of The Wild. 

The Rangers, led by Imogen's friend Lucía (Jessica Rivas), are a major local adaptation of Shakespeare’s script. Lucía tries repeatedly to persuade Mayor Cymbeline to cancel The Deal, and is not directly successful. But she and her colleagues know the deep ecological value of the forest, its stewardship for millennia by Indigenous people (represented by South Sierra Miwuk Ranger Emily Dayhoff), and its unifying power: “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” 

We see this power in action when Iachimo journeys into The Wild to help challenge the protesters: after re-experiencing the Wild's grandeur, he repents his fraud and begins to turn Mayor Cymbeline against The Deal. Viewers share Iachimo's transformative wonder vicariously in gorgeous film shots of Yosemite.

Cymbeline also feels the ethical force of the protesters’ protection of The Wild, which contributes to his change of heart at a vulnerable moment after Queenie has fled, Imogen seems lost, and he has sunk into a bewildered depression. He grieves by singing a wounded version of “Motherless Child;” and again the maternal absence feels ecological as well as psychological. 


When Posthumus overhears two Rangers talking about the discovery of a headless body, he assumes it is Imogen’s. Pained by this apparently grotesque gap in nature, he dons a bear mask and vows to redeem Imogen’s memory by supporting the protesters. But, before reaching them, he is roughed up by Cymbeline’s security forces and detained. Viewers soon discover that Imogen has been separately detained, as have Belarius, Arviragus, and Guiderius.  

Posthumus receives a dream-vision in his cell from his Latinx father. We learn that his father died as a result of pesticide poisoning, an allusion to the toxic working conditions of California Central Valley agribusiness. His mother, we learn too, died in a climate-change-intensified wildfire. Posthumus is an orphan of the Anthropocene.

These details about Leo are communicated in the narrator’s backstory at the beginning of the film, and they contribute to making Leo a more sympathetic character than Shakespeare’s Posthumus. His father’s prophecy of regeneration (“When a bear cub shall, to himself unknown, without seeking find … a piece of tender air…”, spoken in Spanish) serves both to radicalize and mature Leo after he is released. This comes about after Iachimo further exhorts Cymbeline to kill The Deal and pardon the protesters.

Imogen is also visited in her cell by the ghost of her mother, who assures her that her misfortunes will rebound into a more secure and sustainable future. Both parental prophecies are realized in the final scene’s abbreviated revelations and joyful reunions between Imogen and Leo (his notorious slap is omitted), between Imogen and her father, and between Cymbeline and his two sons, presented by Belarius. The Mayor’s familial and ecological deficits are wonderfully redeemed: “I am mother to the birth of three!” He and Belarius exchange a meaningful handshake in lingering close-up. 

Imogen in the Wild is the fruit of a local partnership between the University of California Merced (its co-directors Katie Brokaw, Paul Prescott, and William Wolfgang teach there, and many of the film's actors, producers, and editors are students there) and Yosemite National Park and its National Park Service Rangers (about whom more anon). It is a deeply thoughtful and artistically layered adaptation of Cymbeline, and one that merits further consideration of its film and sound creations as well as its reinvented dramaturgy. I'll turn to the technical and artistic flourishes that make Imogen in the Wild a unique and powerful vision of eco-Shakespeare in part two of this blog review, available next week. 

Meanwhile, please enjoy the film's free, full-length release on Youtube, as linked above, and please join us in congratulating Shakespeare in Yosemite on their achievement