nytheatre.com review by Brad Lee Thomason
May 24, 2011
For the first two hours and thirty-five minutes this fictional story of Shakespeare’s struggle to become who we recognize now as the greatest English playwright of all time had me hooked. The acting was superb, the story intriguing, the production value very high; the design very well thought out. However, this play runs approximately two hours and fifty minutes; and quite honestly, I don’t know of a comedy penned by the Bard himself that tries to sustain itself for that long. Maybe All’s Well That Ends Well, but I don’t even think the production I saw of that quite reached the running time of Resonance Theatre’s Shakespeare’s Slave.
Look, I have no problem with a lengthy play if it is able to keep me riveted; and for the most part playwright Steven Fechter accomplishes that with some success. He certainly has some excellent actors and designers to aid in his attempt. The cast is superb from top to bottom; and I was especially impressed with the performances of Steven Pounders as the jolly and effusive George, good friend and company member with Shakespeare; Zack Calhoon as the foppish Ben Jonson-loving critic, (it always makes me giggle when I’m reviewing a play that lampoons reviewers); and Nancy Nagrant as the always poignant and sometimes surprisingly hilarious Anne Hathaway. Shaun Bennet Wilson as Grace gives a powerful and heartfelt performance as the slave to Sir John Hunksley, a wealthy investor in the English slave trade who tries to commission William to write a play about him and claims the English slave trade is “doing God’s work.” Hunksley’s buffoonery is carried off well by Chris Ceraso. And of course there must be a mention made of David L. Townsend’s performance as the Bard himself, heroically carrying this lengthy tale with tremendous passion and vigor.
If I didn’t mention an actor, trust me, it’s not because I thought there were any weak performances here. If you want to see a show with very skilled actors dressed in exquisite Elizabethan costumes designed by Mark Richard Caswell then I can’t do anything but recommend Shakespeare’s Slave. In fact, the technical aspects of the production are all very well done, from the direction of Eric Parness to the fight choreography by Dan Renkin to the imaginative lights from Joe Doran.
As I’ve already mentioned I loved this show for the first two hours and thirty-five minutes. Unfortunately the final scene of the play left a bad taste in my mouth and seemed a bit over-indulgent. Throughout the play we see Anne Hathaway communicate with Shakespeare through letters and dreams, beseeching Will to come back to Stratford and deal with the death of his son Hamnet and take care of his daughters. The child and Hathaway haunt the Bard throughout the show, and the penultimate scene of the play seems to resolve, at least in my opinion, the play’s major conflicts. I was almost sure that this was the play’s conclusion, and to me it would have been a satisfactory one.
However, after a lengthy blackout, the lights came back up, but not for the expected curtain call. I don’t think the final scene needed to be included at all; it only seems to tie up loose ends between William and Grace, introduce awkwardly the concept of Sir John Falstaff being modeled after Sir John Hunksley, and allow for the final line of the play to be “I am William Shakespeare, England’s greatest playwright!”
As if that is something I needed to be told. I felt at the end I was being hit over the head with a hammer, and that Fechter was trying to drive in a point that to me already seemed clear. It made me think of the negative connotations this show makes towards Shakespeare. He was a drinker, a swindler, and a gambler, according to Fechter. He was a negligent husband and an absentee father. I’m not saying the playwright is wrong; but I would have much rather departed from Theatre Row drawing my own conclusions about the fate of William, Grace (who is the title character here), and Rose, a bar-wench who picks Shakespeare up off the floor of her tavern at the beginning of both acts.
It is worth mentioning that Shakespeare’s Slave is running in rep at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre with a new adaptation of Henry IV Parts One and Two, titled H4. From what quality I have seen from the company, I will definitely be returning to watch H4 as well; except this time not as a foppish critic, but simply as a hopeful and expectant patron of the theatre.