The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is dedicated to preserving the works of history’s greatest playwright. And, once in a great while, finding lowbrow humor in even their most highbrow moments.
“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised),” which opened this week on the theater’s outdoor stage (at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morris Township), is a manic slapstick romp, with nearly as much bodily function humor as you’d find in a Seth Rogen movie. It’s also, in all probability, the most riotously funny play you’ll encounter on a New Jersey stage this year. Don’t miss it.
The theater has presented the 1987 play on its outdoor before, in 2008, and one of the three actors from that production, Jeffrey M. Bender, directs this “revised” version, which includes references to “Hamilton,” “50 Shades of Grey,” “Game of Thrones” and, inevitably, Donald Trump, plus lots of audience participation. Sneaker-wearing actors Patrick Toon, Connor Carew and Jon Barker are in constant, manic motion, and Benjamin Kramer’s handsome and clever set, featuring a a disheveled mini-library of giant Shakespeare books, gives them something to climb up, slide down, or hide behind for their many costume changes.
Toon, who serves as a kind of host, takes the stage first, announcing that this evening represents something “unprecedented” — a production of all of Shakespeare’s plays, in less than two hours.
He then introduces Barker as a somewhat supercilious Shakespeare expert (who, we eventually learn, doesn’t really know much about the Bard). After asking audience members about their familiarity with Shakespeare, Barker turns to Toon.
“Dude, we’re screwed … I think they know more than we do,” he says.
Carew, who is given most of the show’s broadest physical humor, is first introduced as a cloddish audience member, but then takes his place alongside Toon and Barker, acting out bits of the plays. They all change characters so quickly and make so many silly puns that you can’t always keep up.
A whirlwind “Romeo and Juliet” is first, then “Titus Andronicus” as a cooking show. “Othello” is rapped.
All the comedies are jumbled together, as are all the histories (with a football theme). The actors cover so much ground so quickly that they are able to devote the second half of show to just the sonnets and “Hamlet.”
When Carew worries that they won’t be able to do “Hamlet” justice, Toon responds, “We don’t have to do it justice. We just have to do it.”
Carew has the play’s only real moment of seriousness, a straightforward and quite impressive reading of the Hamlet soliloquy “What a piece of work is a man!” It’s like comic relief in reverse: A brief reminder of how sublime Shakespeare’s writing is, before everyone returns to the clowning.
By the end of the evening, the three actors have not only touched on all the plays — devoting at least a mention to each one — but have enough time left over to do a second, even-more-condensed version of “Hamlet,” and then do it a third time, even faster. And backwards.
The play runs through July 31; visit shakespearenj.org.