Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Wilm Shkspr Stooooops to Conquer
Running an hour and forty minutes or so, plus intermission, the production is as family audience friendly as prior outdoor STNJ productions. Given the relaxing outdoor setting, the delightful, uninhibited performances of the three-man troupe assembled for the occasion under the sure-handed direction of Jason King Jones, and the ephemeral, lowest comic denominator approach of the authors, it is unlikely that one could find a more ideal circumstance in which to see Wilm Shkspr.
After a bit of folderol during which the actors introduce themselves and the concept to the audience, we are treated to a fifteen- minute or so parody of Romeo and Juliet "where in a scene of timeless romance/ he'll try to get into Juliet's pants." We do get to hear some of the Bard's deathless poetrywell, sort of ("that which we call by any other name/ Would still smell"; "parting is such sweet sorrow/ Really, it is"). Friar Lawrence speaks in the manner of a member of Tony Soprano's crew. After learning of Romeo's death, Jeff Bender's Juliet flounces up the amphitheater's steps where she breathlessly says to a male patron, "He's dead. What are you doing tonight?" Next up is Titus Andronicus performed as a television cooking show. Herein the androgynous host and Livinia behead and eviscerate Alarbus and cook up his body parts. There is a reference to Rachael Ray (some initials familiar to her viewers are mentioned) which I missed, but was informed of subsequent to the first act. Because there is no black actor on hand, the story of Othello is related in rap style lyrics ("Here's a story about a man named Othello/ He liked white women and ate green jello").
Citing repeatedly recycled plot devices throughout Shakespeare's comedies, our new Reduced Shakespeare Company then condenses the sixteen Shakespeare comedies into a quick summary of their collage play The Love Boat Goes to Verona. This may have been very clever and encapsulating, but it ran by so quickly that I was unable to absorb, let alone digest it. Suffice it to say that, in the world of Wilm Shkspr, the tragedies are far funnier than the comedies. Brief versions of the Scottish play (here there's a line that I'm certain is new for New Jersey: "He looks more like McGreevy than Macduff"), Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Troilus and Cressida. A play that Shakespeare likely co-authored is reduced to serving as a pun about a Soviet tragedy ("Chernobyl Kinsmen"). The histories are combined into a quick series of changes of fortune in the form of a football game. About to conclude, the actors discover that they have "missed" perhaps the greatest Shakespeare play of all. At this point, one frustrated actor flees the theatre with another in hot pursuit, necessitating an intermission before an extended précis of Hamlet.
There is little effort to look deeply into the plays for insightful observations and sharp humor. The hilarity is derived from a plethora of costume changes (as our three tireless actors move from role to role to role), endless puns of the groaner variety (many containing double entendres and sexual innuendo) and energetic, sometimes gross physical humor (I wonder if the repeated simulated vomiting was included in the text prior to the explosion of such humor in youth oriented screen comedies). There is more than a modicum of audience participation. It makes for a painless (even as we simulate pain at the puns), diverting night outdoors at the theatre. And Wilm Shkspr could be valuable in bringing Shakespeare to the attention of some of those youths who are the key demographic of today's movie audience.
Wilm Shkspr was written by American actors for themselves to perform. Author-actors Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield (aka The Reduced Shakespeare Company) performed the play in its premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987. It subsequently played 2,000 performances in London, has had three successful, well received New York productions, and been a staple in regional theaters across America. Over the years, the pop culture references in the script have been updated. YouTube, Facebook and Ryan Seacrest were not around at the time of its genesis. I do not know which of the references have been scripted or improvised by the current cast and director, but there is a strong improvisational feel to Wilm Shkspr which accounts for much of the fun and high spirits generated by it. In recent years, it has become well established that actors other than the original authors can most successfully make this work their own.
Wilm Shkspr is an ensemble comedy in which precise timing, high energy and close interplay among the actors is crucial. Each actor plays "himself," which includes "himself" portraying a myriad of other roles. Among his other roles, Jeffery M. Bender plays all of the major female roles beginning with Juliet. Bender performs with the correct male comedian's distance from actual femininity. David Foubert is most adroit and amusing as the foppish academician who introduces the plays and serves as our guide. Foremost among his other roles is Hamlet. Jay Leibowitz is gruffly amusing as Romeo, and remains so through his many roles.
The lovely and eminently performable set is by Charles Calvert. It is made up of 20-foot-high, thick, authentic-looking books bearing the names of various Shakespeare plays on their bindings. Most are vertical, but three are horizontally laid atop one another, providing three additional playing levels. Also, the binding of one of the vertically placed books has three door sections at the bottom which can be opened individually or together, and are employed to excellent comic effect. Those witty costumes which require ease and rapidity in their donning and removal are by Summer Lee Jack.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) continues performances (Tues.-Sat. 8:15 p.m./ Sun 7:15 p.m.) through July 20, 2007 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Outdoor Stage on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth, Route 124 and Convent Station, Morristown, NJ. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.