BWW Review: WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S LONG LOST FIRST PLAY: A Cauldron Full of Belly Laughs at the Folger from the Reduced Shakespeare Company
There is but poor substitute for a trio of fools on a romp to entertain; nay, but it is futility at its finest to resist the siren call of slapstick's song.
Anyone else have the urge to, as I call it, "Shakespeak" after an evening of Shakespeare? No? Just me? Ok, well no matter. In any pentameter, the Reduced Shakespeare Company's (RSC) Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor and Teddy Spencer are very, very funny; fearless, quick witted, masters of quick change and, most importantly, having a blast on stage, which means the audience is likely to have fun too. The RSC has a long history of taking gargantuan themes (think American history, The Bible, Hollywood) and mining them for laughs, and, inspired by a 2010 visit to the Folger, creating a work that covered the Shakespearean universe in one "holy grail" of a play, seemed an obvious mission to them.
Lo and behold, they're back, mission accomplished, with the world premiere of this new work: William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (wholly unnecessary spoiler alert: not real). The play's set up, as we're told by the three at the start, is that while on tour, they found a hole in the parking lot next to their van, (named...wait for it) Titus Vandronicus, which contained a massive manuscript of a 100 hour long play by a 17 year old Will, featuring 1,369 characters and a decidedly unfocused plot. The guys have turned up at the Folger to get it "verified," and this production has ensued. Fittingly, it just happens to be the real world 400th anniversary of our man, William (he died April 23, 1616).
The most important thing to enjoying this show is not a knowledge of Shakespeare; rather it is to lower your brow and bring your silly (and any random Disney references rolling around in your brain). Once you've found your seat in the delightfully atmospheric Folger Elizabethan Theatre, switch off your phone, switch off your serious, and switch on your willingness to field the barrage of gags lobbed your way. The intimacy of the Folger works well with this kind of broad comedy and a minimal set; laughter is especially contagious in small spaces.
The clever conceit that the outrageous happenings are the result of a feud between Shakespeare fans' favorite magic makers, Midsummer's Puck and The Tempest's Ariel works brilliantly. It anchors the otherwise chaotic assemblage of character and story points, and the scenes between Puck and Ariel were the most organically "Shakespearean," necessary to maintaining the allusion to the inspiration for the play.
Make no mistake, this is an absolute, resolute, hoot, of a bawdy comedy of errors. It finds the funny in Lear, Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, Juliet and Richard III, and so many others, as they consciously couple, uncouple, mistake their identities, lose their identical twins, and get lost in all manner of Shakespearean country and wood. It's the kind of tribute that Shakespeare himself would have appreciated; his plots and words and characters are so familiar to us, whether or not we realize it, that they can be spoofed hilariously, woven with modern day pop references, twisted into knots, and we still recognize the storytelling genius of his work.
Thankfully, the cast will break the fourth (fifth, sixth...twentieth) wall periodically, to give the audience context. This is often done by Reed Martin (an actual clown by training), who is wildly likable, and has impeccable comedic timing. Not to diminish the work of Austin Tichenor (co-director of RSC with Martin), and Teddy Spencer, both of whom own every one of the multitude of characters they inhabit over the course of the evening, and the stage along with them. There is not a wig unworn, a costume undonned, a prop left unused in pursuit of the humor, and it's all done with such dexterity, that the unseen dresser assistants got their own bow at the end.
A few quibbles: it could use some trimming; some of the gags outlive their funny; and I'd prefer the Company promo spot be done at the end of the show, rather than at the start of Act II, as it breaks the spell a bit too much. Also, while you don't need to be fluent in Shakespeare to get your [generous] share of laughs, the sheer number of character and story references that are part of the premise of the show, can cause one to miss a gag while trying to figure out which character/plot/setting is being referenced; you may feel as if you should recognize the name/place/storyline but by the time you figure it out, if you do, the show has moved on. But not to worry, there'll probably be a random bear, gaggle of witches, vaudevillian royal or a sprite suffering a fit of pique to catch you up.
William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play, and the Reduced Shakespeare Company, are true comedic treats, and will appeal to most ages eight and up.
Performances through May 8 '16. For more information and tickets visit http://www.folger.edu/events/the-reduced-shakespeare-company .
For more about the Reduced Shakespeare Company, visit their website: http://www.reducedshakespeare.com/2016/04/premiering-in-dc-coming-to-edinburgh-its-shakespeares-long-lost-first-play-abridged/