The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death has been cause for great fanfare worldwide the past few weeks. The Royal Shakespeare Company put on a live performance viewed by millions, the Brooklyn Academy of Music staged the four-play “cycle of kings,” and the Globe Theatre hosted an interactive walk through his work, to name just a few of the events.
But if you’re in the DC area, you can be one of the lucky few to watch the Reduced Shakespeare Company‘s (abridged) version of Shakespeare’s long-lost first play.
The three-man group, which is known for condensing well-known plays into “short, sharp comedies,” sets the scene well. They claim to have found the manuscript for the play under a parking lot (like another famous Shakespearean figure), and that it amazingly contains the plots and characters for several of Shakespeare’s later works. However, in the interest of time, they’ve cut the weighty tome down into a manageable, if frenetically paced, two-hour show.
The play, which centers on a feud between Midsummer’s Puck and The Tempest’s Ariel, indeed features Shakespeare’s characters and story lines in new ways. It entertains thought-provoking questions as well, ones that scholars have pondered for centuries. What if Richard III didn’t have that hump? What would happen if Juliet instead fell for Dromio? Could Lady Macbeth help Hamlet to be just a little more decisive?
We even get a visit from the Bard himself, in one of the show’s later scenes. It offers a nice preview of what’s to come, as the playwright realizes that many of these characters deserve their own plays—and, if nothing else, Puck and Ariel should probably be separated.
Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor, and Teddy Spencer play each of the show’s many characters with unflagging humor and enthusiasm, executing a series of quick-changes that would make lesser (or less energetic) actors’ heads spin. Co-written by Martin and Tichenor, the show is quite clearly a labor of love; they’re likely some of the biggest Shakespeare fans you’ll see onstage.
The show, like most comedic send-ups, is better if you know the original material. That bear chasing someone offstage, for instance, might seem less like a random, silly stunt if you’re familiar with the stage direction in The Winter’s Tale. Yet it’s by no means unintelligible or inaccessible, even if you think you’re a Shakespeare novice. In fact, you’ll be surprised by how much you do know, simply from watching or reading other things. The show makes a point of mentioning how many Disney movies are based on Shakespeare plays—one character even jokes that Stratford-upon-Avon should be renamed “Shakespeare Land.”
William Shakespeare’s Long Long First Play (abridged) runs at the Folger Shakespeare Library through May 8.