By Vicki Weisfeld
You may recall with delight the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), whose madcap condensation of Shakespeare’s plays began making the rounds in 1981 and became one of the theater world’s most-produced plays. Some of the funniest material from the play’s many international productions has made its way into this new version—“updated for the 21st century”—by the three founding members of RSC: Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield.
It’s a fast-moving farce, well suited for The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s (STNJ) annual outdoor stage production, on view through July 31. This new production has new surprises, including a rap version of Othello (thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda). As directed by Jeffrey M. Bender, it’s as antic and energetic as its predecessor. It would have to be, since (abridged)(revised) presents all 37 plays and the sonnets, after a fashion, in 97 minutes. There’s one intermission an hour in—Red Bull break for the cast, methinks.
The cast includes STNJ regular Jon Barker (a master of body language), Connor Carew, and Patrick Toon, each changing personae at the blink of an eye or slapping on of a wig. Carew’s Ophelia is hilarious, and Toon is a lustily belligerent Romeo. From time to time, there are bits of audience participation, perfect for the relaxed atmosphere of the outdoor stage.
The clever set comprises giant volumes of the Bard’s works. The books’ spines conceal doors, prop drawers, and the like. While the set and the setting are great, and the cast does an amazing job, the script itself fits my mother-in-law’s ambiguous phrase, “it is what it is.” A couple of the most familiar plays—Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet—receive more attention than the others, and the roller-coaster ride through the comedies is great fun.
We overheard that some of the reworking of material was intended to make this play—and perhaps Shakespeare’s works themselves—“more attractive to a younger audience.” In line with that goal, tickets are free for kids 18 and younger at the Outdoor Stage, thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Bank of America.
Presumably, the younger audience in question means 14-year-old boys, given the emphasis on bawdy humor of the type that makes them giggle knowingly. The script has enough gags—verbal and sight—that there’s no need to tarry in some of the more obvious places (“the last four letters” of Coriolanus, for example). While what people will find funny is heavily a matter of individual taste, Sunday’s audience at STNJ on Sunday found enough of what they liked to give the performers steady laughter and an enthusiastic reception.
Through July 31 at the beautiful outdoor Greek Theatre on the campus of the College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, New Jersey. Arrive early, take a picnic.
Production credits to Benjamin Kramer (set design), Tiffany Lent (costumes), Hamilton E.S. Smith (lighting design)(not to mention The Sun, uncredited), Käri B. Berntson (sound design), and Jackie Mariani (production stage manager).
For tickets, call the STNJ box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the box office online.