Last week, it was announced that Mad magazine will no longer continue to produce new material, and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opened “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged)” at the Outdoor Stage at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown.
Those two facts are unrelated, of course. But they’re connected in my mind, at least, because “Long Lost First Play” is a three-dimensional version of the kind of parodies I remember Mad doing (of movies) when I was a kid in the ’60s and ’70s: silly, clever, irreverent, and studded with a barrage of seemingly random pop-culture references.
No one will get every joke: You’d need to be a major Shakespeare expert, and even if you were knowledgeable enough, the jokes are delivered at such a fast pace you’d surely miss things from time to time. But even for a Shakespeare neophyte, there is enough wordplay and physical humor — and digressions that don’t have much to do with Shakespeare — for you to find plenty to laugh about in the course of the evening. This play, which debuted in 2016, may be the most entertaining Shakespeare-related play since “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).”
This is no accident. “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged)” was developed by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which is also responsible for the frequently produced “Complete Works.” Its writers, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, joined the company after “Complete Works” was already a hit, and stuck to a similar formula, parodying history’s greatest playwright with a goofy, anything-for-a-laugh spirit, breaking the fourth wall, getting audience members directly involved in the action and so on.
Like “Complete Works,” this is a play that demands a lot of its actors: There are just three of them, playing countless parts, so they’re constantly racing around the stage, changing costumes and accents — making a comically flowery speech one minute and clowning around the next. Under the direction of longtime Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey veteran Brian B. Crowe, Ryan Woods, Jonathan Finnegan and Connor Carew impressed with both their energy and their skill.
The idea of “Complete Works” was to touch on all of Shakespeare’s plays, at least briefly, in the course of a single evening. It’s basically a series of skits.
“Long Lost” has a similar idea but more of a story, imagining that a troupe of actors has discovered the manuscript for a previously unknown play that Shakespeare penned before he wrote all the other plays we know and love. This play contains many of his most famous characters and some minor ones, too; according to the premise, Shakespeare later separated the story lines into individual plays. (The long-lost play is supposedly way too long to be produced in a single evening, incorporating hundreds of scene; that’s why this is the “abridged” version).
The central conflict of “Long Lost” is a rivalry between supernatural mischief-makers Puck (from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and Ariel (from “The Tempest”). At various times, you’ll see Lady Macbeth and Hamlet together, or Beatrice (from “Much Ado About Nothing”) and Richard III.
There are puppets and water pistols; references to Beyoncé and “Harry Potter” and “Gilligan’s Island”; Falstaff proclaiming “My kingdom for a whore!”; a running joke about the connection of Shakespeare’s plays to various Disney movies; and a surprising number of production-specific references to current events and towns in the Morristown area.
Be warned: There are also fart jokes, a gag that consisted of nothing more than an actor walking into a wall, and too many punchlines built around the fact that the word asp (the snake that figures in the plot of “Antony and Cleopatra”) sounds like “ass.”
But this is the kind of play where, if one joke falls flat, or seems too crass to laugh at, you don’t have to wait long for another, better one to come along.
Brian Ruggaber’s cartoonishly tilted set and Paul Canada’s bright, playful costumes created just the right mood, and lighting and sound effects — by Jason Flamos and Käri B. Berntson, respectively — were crucial to some scenes. The play’s many moving parts worked together very smoothly on the night I attended.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey will present “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged)” at the Outdoor Stage at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown through Aug. 4. There will be no admission charge, at any show, for anyone 18 or younger. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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