Fractured Shakespeare creator Charissa J. Adams curated multiple lines from the works of William Shakespeare for her short film, Was it Rape, Then? to explore the subject of consent.
Now, Adams has expanded the concept into a new play at this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Speak I Will, created by Adams and directed by Jessica Erin Martin, Benjamin McFadden, and Carly D. Weckstein, is a creative collection of monologues pieced together from excerpts of Shakespeare’s extensive collection of works: the world famous Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo & Juliet, and Taming of the Shrew; the less famous King John, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline, and many, many other plays and sonnets. As the cast of eight actors take turns reciting the rearranged words of the world’s most famous playwright, they directly comment on how views of women in Shakespeare’s time still remain relevant today.
Set on a simple black stage with minimal effects or fanfare, the opening of the show is both a declaration, “I will speak,” and a long list of definitions of women made by men: a woman is a whore, a monster, a shrew. The same segment pushes back on itself: the lines “Her speech is nothing,” and “who will believe thee?” are a relevant reference in the era of #MeToo.
One cast member reads from an issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine: “My husband is my lord,” as the other actors gather around and listen intently. Another declares that ”self-love is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting,” as the “self-care” movement – which has blossomed into a massive industry in recent years – keeps reminding us. Another cast member declares to a mirror, “thy voice shall be as strong as any man’s.”
One monologue explores how women view men when men are at their worst; it’s an acknowledgement of cycles of violence perpetuated from one generation to the next. “Where are your sons to back you now?” comes across as a statement on shifting power dynamics and a challenge for men to evolve beyond the sins of their fathers; a conversation we still don’t have as often as we should. Conversely, our next monologue implores men to embrace partnership: “if it pleases you, come home to me, I’ll wait for you…thy vows are equal partner to my vows.”
The show ends with Adams asking “Was it rape, then?…”True, she did not consent, as true she did resist, but still, in silence, all.” It’s a reference to her earlier work, an acknowledgment of such constant pain, and a call for change. ”And speak, I will,” Adams tells her audience. “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or my heart concealing it will break.”
The cast lines up for the final call to action: ”Now put your shields beside your hearts and fight…come on my fellows, advance!” All eight actors shout straight at the audience in a collective primal scream, and the theater is dark.
Across multiple centuries, art continues to find itself in the unique position to both reflect its cultural surroundings and challenge them to change. Artists frequently work to reconcile how to pay tribute to something we love and find inspiring in our own work, and critique the ways in which we now find it problematic. Speak I Will ultimately serves as both a distressing reminder that women still have to fight to have their voices heard and their experiences validated, and refreshing take on what our current cultural climate can learn from the work of the past. Shakespeare’s words in particular, in part because of his brutally honest commentary and in part because of his immense popularity, are especially poignant in the dawn of a new era in gender politics.