By Ruth Ross
Quick! Someone call the authorities to report the antic mayhem perpetrated by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in the amphitheater on the campus of St. Elizabeth College in Convent Station. It seems that three terrorists have hijacked the 37 plays by William Shakespeare and are treating them with extraordinary disrespect. It's so bad that they are performing abridged versions of the comedies, tragedies and histories in 90 minutes. Worse, these three terrorists insist on playing more than 100 characters—even women—adorned in crazy wigs, outlandish costumes, colored high-topped sneakers and athletic socks! (Above L-R: Connor Carew, Patrick Toon, Jon Barker. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia)
Oh, okay. Onstage are three of the troupe's most versatile and accomplished actors (directed by another who is world-class clown) performing Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield's irreverent spoof, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridge) (revised), on the outdoor stage where it runs through July 31.
So just who is responsible for this zaniness? First off, primary blame goes to Jeffrey M. Bender, STNJ's resident comic actor, who keeps the action moving at full tilt so no on— neither the actors or the audience—has time to take a breath or reflect on the indignities being inflicted on the works of our greatest dramatist. Shakespeare’s original Elizabethan language is preserved, providing further merriment, in addition to the liberties the cast takes with their interpretations. Contemporary references (the revised part of the title) to Game of Thrones, Hamilton and Donald Trump keep the production fresh and topical. (Right: Jon Barker. Photo by Jerry Dalia)
Actors Jon Barker, Connor Carew and Patrick Toon attempt to convince us they know everything there is to know about Shakespeare, but they manage to mangle, mix up and manipulate the plays to a fare-thee-well. They switch roles with alacrity—often confused about who is playing whom—and even coerce the audience to participate in the pandemonium.
Think Monty Python meets the Marx Brothers. “The Scottish Play” (a k a Macbeth) out‑Scottishes the most ardent kilt‑wearer, and the gory Titus Andronicus becomes a cooking show. Hamlet is presented four times—once backwards! Othello is performed as an Hamilton rap number. Because Shakespeare is a formula writer, the comedies are combined into one, entitled “Cymbeline Taming Pericles, the Merchant, in the Tempest of Love As Much as You Like It for Nothing” or “The Love Boat Goes to Verona.” The history plays are performed as a football game, with a crown as the pigskin!
This daunting feat is pulled off with the help of Tiffany Lent's collection of fright wigs, puppets and outrageous costumes, along with loads of frenetic running back and forth across the stage and in and out of the exits. Benjamin Kramer's ingenious set (top image) resembles stacks of books with drawers and doors cleverly hidden. Carew's physicality is astonishing; as most of the female characters, he slips, slides and tumbles, never missing a line, and gets up ready for more! Barker gamely tries to control the hilarity, and Toon valiantly attempts to provide gravitas that is especially ludicrous in light of the merriment constantly swirling around him. (Above L-R: Patrick Toon, Connor Carew, Jon Barker. Photo credit: Jerry Dalia)
Sophomoric? Yes. Burlesque? Yes. Filled with more information on Shakespeare than you thought possible? Unquestionably. Guaranteed to produce unending laughter? Absolutely! The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised) is a treat for the entire family (well, maybe not the little ones). This giddy, energetic romp, Shakespeare on speed, is pure entertainment, perhaps the funniest show in 500 years. You’ll kick yourself if you miss it. (Above: Barker and Carew. Photo by Jerry Dalia)
Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised) will be performed at the Greek Amphitheatre on the campus of St. Elizabeth College in Convent Station through July 31. Evening performances begin at 8:15. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.