by Ruth Ross
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines mash-up as “a movie or video having characters or situations from other sources,” a description that could be applied to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s midsummer mix-up currently raising the figurative roof at the outdoor amphitheater on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station through August 4th.
Similar to The Compleat Works of Wm Shkspr (abridged)—last produced by STNJ in 2016, also on the outdoor stage—Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) takes the audience on a high-energy, comedic romp through the Bard’s 39 plays. Less organized than its predecessor (where, for the most part, each play was parodied separately), their opus smushes all the plays together, interspersing the tangled plots with current cultural references, rap rhymes, ribald jokes (although the language is G-rated), lighting-speed dialogue, and seemingly instant costume and wig changes by a trio of actors who portray scores of characters in an irreverent and outrageous manner.
It is here that I stop, dear reader, to assure you that I will not divulge any spoilers, so as not to run your fun. In fact, I cannot recall many of the jokes, so fast and furiously were they delivered by a rotund Connor Carew (a veteran of the 2016 production), a lean and lanky Jonathan Finnegan, and a well-built, muscular Ryan Woods! They worked so hard over the warm evening that their bodies glistened with sweat, although their energy never flagged. Too, their dramatic delivery was impeccable; despite not being miked, we missed nary a word.
To continue: Ostensibly written by a 17-year-old playwright and only now receiving its “world premiere,” William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) involves a competition between Puck (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Ariel (from The Tempest) to determine which mischievous sprite is the most powerful. Toting a huge handwritten “book” marked with sticky notes, the actors make wholesale cuts to the text, whittling the “original” down from a running time of four days to just under two hours! Along the way, characters from the various tragedies, histories and comedies appear and interact willy-nilly, much to the merriment of the audience, who loudly responded with laughter and cheers.
You really don’t have to be all that familiar with Shakespeare’s works to enjoy the Long Lost First Play. If you have read/studied them, you’ll relish the wild combinations and reimagined iconic scenes (the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet or Bottom’s transformation into an ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance). Even if you are not that familiar with the plays, you’ll still get a kick out of the silly characters and the rapid-fire delivery of insane, albeit original, dialogue by the three talented actors. Indeed, the unflagging energy of this homage to Shakespeare is a testament to Crowe’s directorial skills.
As for production values, once again STNJ doesn’t disappoint. Brian Ruggaber has designed a garish, carnival-like set with huge posters, three doorways (de rigeur for farce), a psychedelic bus and a huge image of the Bard looming over the mayhem. That master of costume design, Paul Canada, has designed a huge number of gaudily colorful costumes that can be donned in the blink of an eye, enabling the trio to portray the putative 1,639 (!) characters who populate the plays. Jason Flamos’s lighting and Käri B. Berntson’s sound effectively add texture to the production as daylight fades.
The annual Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s outdoor summer productions are anxiously anticipated and not to be missed. Once again, comedy reigns supreme, providing a wacky opportunity for the family “to laugh together under the stars,” according to director Brian Crowe. STNJ has made that experience even easier by offering free admission to kids 18 and under. To that, I say, “Hear! hear!”
So, pack a picnic, bring a chair (or not), grab junior or grandma/pa, and head on over to Convent Station in Florham Park to observe this annual tradition for theater-going families. Your family will thank you.
William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) will be performed through August 4 at the College of St. Elizabeth. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.