If you are going to create a play about Shakespeare, it better be about the writing. The Resonance Ensemble’s production of Shakespeare’s Slave is all about the writing; and in this production, the costumes, designed with genius and ingenuity by Mark Richard Caswell. This is not to say the actors, especially David L. Townsend as the Bard himself, and director, Eric Parness, aren’t providing powerful support. They navigate some jolts in the script, some limitations of the space, and some inherent challenges in a contemporary telling of a period tale with nimble focus.
Along with Mr. Townsend, actors Chris Ceraso and Romy Nordlinger are standouts. Shaun Bennet Wilson, in a central role, has struggles that are not entirely of her creation. She is playing a theatrical device that has been written for function more than character, which brings me back to the writing.
For good and bad, this new script by Steven Fechter, is the star of the show. The best part of the script is merely that it exists, that the company commissioned it, and that this production could lead to revisions that can only make future productions stronger. Seeing a play of this quality and this potential in its infancy is a gift. It isn’t perfect, but to discover it is reason enough to see it. And to discover the Resonance Ensemble and their commitment to producing a classical play and a modern play with a common theme in rep was a treat for me.
In its current stage the play resembles a graduate school honors thesis, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. It is well thought out, well written for the most part, and well conceived. The idea of deconstructing characters from Shakespeare’s writings and casting them as acquaintances and intimates from his life isn’t a revolutionary concept, but it makes sense and provides dramatic fodder. It worked effectively for Shakespeare in Love, and works here, or is beginning to work. The dark lady of the sonnets is brought to life, into Shakespeare’s life, and changes it to the benefit of his writing and generations who might have missed out on his brilliance had these two lives and hearts not crossed.
Casting the dark lady as an African slave actually creates more problems than it solves, not the least of which is that it isn’t believable and borders on offensive. By making this slave feisty and defiant with the ability to sneak around freely, glosses over the reality and humiliation of being owned. The play is left to tell you how bad slavery is and relegates all that badness to an intellectual exercise rather than forcing the audience to confront it or feel it. The script simply tells us that many things are bad: slavery, rape, grief. All three are subjects with the power to move and compel, but there isn’t much compelling and absolutely nothing moving about the treatment of these particular subjects here. They are devices, nothing more.
With tweaks and tightening (too many short scenes, many dramatically unnecessary, too much homage, too much focus on Shakespearean references, too little focus on Mr. Fechter telling his story, and trying too hard to be significant), Shakespeare’s Slave could be liberated and soar. I personally hope the first tweak is to change that dreadful title—perhaps if the creators took slavery seriously, understood the effect of being owned, they wouldn’t apostrophize and could transform a pivotal device into an affecting character. Shakespeare’s Slave is good enough that it (and she) deserves it.
Shakespeare’s Slave is running in rep with H4, a modern, multi-media telling of Henry IV that I did not see but wish I had.
(Press seats, 5th row, aisle in a small house with no bad seat)