'H4' and 'Shakespeare's Slave'

Photo Source: Jon Kandel
The completed work and the writing process are often at odds. William Shakespeare is no exception, as evidenced by Steven Fechter's new play "Shakespeare's Slave," a tale of the Bard's quest for a muse for "Henry IV." Playing in repertory with "H4," a modern multimedia adaptation of both parts of "Henry IV," "Shakespeare's Slave" is well-written and dramaturgically sound. Although the play feels somewhat derivative of other accounts of Shakespeare's life, Fechter's writing talent shines through. Bolstered by strong performances, "H4" is a slightly incongruous adaptation, but the dialogue between the two productions generally proves effective and astute.

Playing on the hype of shows like "24" and "Lost," "H4" thrusts the king's reign into a 21st-century television series, opening with a "previously on" segment and ending with a "next on" teaser. While Sarah B. Brown's scenic design allows for beautiful and effective backdrops and video projections, the two mediums don't mix well. The opening and closing videos provide the only sign that the play is supposed to be a TV series. Without them, it's simply an abridged take on "Henry IV." The completion of character arcs feels rushed in this shortened version. Prince Hal, heir to the throne, and his jovial and unruly sidekick, Falstaff, part ways too abruptly, and Hal's severely troubled relationship with his father is resolved in a matter of beats. Three of the four adapters—Michael Chmiel, Michael Nathanson, and Brian Silliman (the fourth is Allegra Libonati)—valiantly play the lead roles of Henry "Hotspur" Percy, Prince Hal, and Falstaff, respectively. Appropriately, Silliman's Falstaff steals the most scenes—especially when he tastes the liquor from the floor—and the actor's physicality, even with a somewhat obvious pillow gut, enriches the character.

"Shakespeare's Slave" chronicles the Bard's excruciating process of creating "Henry IV." Driven to drinking and gambling, Will finds himself flat broke. He finally discovers his muse in an African slave, one of the first to come to London, in 1596. The slave, whom Fechter bases on the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, serves a rather unruly master named Sir John Hunksley, who offers Will the opportunity to buy into the burgeoning slave trade to earn the money he so desperately needs. The high-caliber cast, led by an absolutely superb David L. Townsend as Shakespeare, delivers the material effectively, and Fechter's witty and insightful writing—"Being someone's muse is too close to being someone's slave"—carries the bulk of the show. The play does gloss over serious subjects such as rape and slavery, which could have been explored further or treated with more gravity, but overall the telling succeeds.

The characters in Will's life inspire the characters in "Henry IV," as is often the case for writers. Scenes from the plays parallel each other, most notably the one in which Falstaff exaggerates how he was robbed. Hunksley tells a similar tale when he relays a made-up account in a last-minute twist.

"Shakespeare's Slave" is not a perfect play, and parts are too reminiscent of films like "Shakespeare in Love." Nevertheless, it is wildly entertaining and made more interesting by its pairing with "H4." While the performances and parts of the adaptation please in "H4"—namely Hal as a rampant party boy at the club—the differences between stage and screen sometimes interrupt the flow. Ultimately, the juxtaposition of the two pieces provokes an interesting dialogue about the role the Bard plays in today's world.

Presented by Resonance Ensemble at the Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC. May 29–June 18. Tue. and Sun, 7 p.m.; Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m., in repertory. (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.telecharge.com.