Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged)
Discovered in a treasure-filled parking lot in Leicester, England (next to a pile of bones that didn’t look that important), an ancient manuscript proves to be the long lost first play written by none other than seventeen-year-old William Shakespeare from Stratford. We are totally not completely making this up. From the program.
This rambunctious comedy, part actual Bard, part extremely clever faux Bard (mostly in couplets and rhymes) and entirely rambunctious, posits that the nascent author’s first effort was a mash-up of everything to come. Three multifaceted, quick-change performers play dozens of carefully enunciated, highly exaggerated roles. “It’s a double Quarto, or a Quarto-Pounder!” exclaims a monk hefting the manuscript.
“An ancient grudge pits Puck (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) against Ariel (The Tempest)…” Bald Puck has a tiny pair of wings and diminutive horns. Ariel first appears in a wig, ersatz mermaid tail and t-shirt printed with a shell bra. Not THAT Ariel! She jettisons the tail, but makes a good case that all Disney stories derive from Shakespeare.
Reed Martin, Teddy Spencer, Austin Tichenor
The two spirits put spells on characters from familiar plays as if competing on Xbox. Poof! Dromio and Antipholus (Comedy of Errors) are transported to Italy. Poof! Puck manifests Hamlet, “You tend to be a not-to-be Hamlet. I need you to be a to-be Hamlet…” who gets paired with Ariel’s conjured Lady Macbeth. Except for opulent red curls, disoriented Falstaff looks like Charles Laughton as Henry VIII. Puck sprinkles nectar in the eyes of Juliet. Wait for it. “Dromio, Dromio, where for art thou, Dromio?” she importunes. Other floral ambrosia makes Bottom (Midsummer), now Eyore, a victim of undying love.
Richard III “Look at him cooing like a dove, with a hump only a mother could love…” pays court to Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing) and is swatted for his efforts. “Thou lovest me!” A ukulele vaudeville serenade follows. No dice. “Maybe Richard wants a he not a she.” Affections fluidly switch genders. Into the three witches’ brew (Macbeth) go “things that are never used in part… Democrat brain, Republican heart…” Fake-muscle-bound Oberon (Midsummer) wanders in accusing Puck. “Why should gentle Puck cross his Oberon?” the fairy asks. “To get to the other side.”
We meet King Lear and his daughters, Prospero and Caliban (The Tempest), “Malvoliago” a compendium who strongly resembles Severus Snape (Harry Potter), Cleopatra “I am Egypt’s queen. In my salad days when I was green, I loved Caesar…” Kate (The Taming of the Shrew), several Henrys, another dozen plus players and the Bard himself.
Austin Tichenor, Teddy Spencer, Reed Martin
The show is fast, its cast uninhibited. There’s NO fourth wall. We’re addressed and winked at; a few of you will participate. All three thespians turn on a dime in accordance with audience reaction. Some of the play is stupid, some of it silly, some of it FUNNY. In order to be a good abstract artist, one has to first understand the figurative. These guys “get” Shakespeare. They wreack havoc with sure hands. Young kids, I think might be lost, but older ones, studying the icon, would likely have a grand time watching him well skewered.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company since 1981 has created 10 stage shows, 2 television specials, several tv pilots, and numerous radio pieces worldwide. There’s a kids pop-up book and one for Attention-Impaired adults
Photos Courtesy of the Company Opening left to right: Reed Martin, Teddy Spencer, Austin Tichenor
The Reduced Shakespeare Company presents William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged) Reed Martin-Co-Author, Co-Director, Performer Austin Tichenor- Co-Author, Co-Director, Performer Teddy Spencer- Performer Through March 11, 2018 The New Victory Theater 209 West 42nd Street
“America is the worst place for the Jews. Except for all the other places.” Shylock in District Merchants
What a year it has been for Shakespeare fans. Theaters celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death have staged his works in many forms. The Folger Theatre (home of the Folger Shakespeare Library) last gifted us with the very humorous William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), and now presents a contemporary version of The Merchant of Venice.
The title – District Merchants – is the first tip off that we’re not in Venice in the 1500s. Playwright Aaron Posner said that after reading a passage of Shylock’s about slavery, “it made me wonder how this story would function in post-Civil War America.” District Merchants is set in the 1870s in Washington, D.C., but the issues dealt with – immigration, racism, anti-Semitism, income inequality, and the marginalization of women – are incredibly relevant, particularly in light of our current presidential campaign. We see a society in transition. Virtually ever character in the play is on the outside looking in, eager to become part of the new order, but struggling to fit in. As one character says: “People like me don’t have the code. We’re not in the game, so we lose every time.”
Craig Wallace and Matthew Boston
The scenery signals the beginning of reconstruction, with massive columns and iron girders filling the stage and the sounds of building echoing throughout the theater. Shylock (Matthew Boston) is still a Jew, but rather than a Venetian moneylender, he’s now an immigrant who lost his wife and some of his children to disease during the long journey to America. He dotes on his surviving daughter, Jessica (Dani Stoller), but his anxiety to keep her safe threatens to stifle her emerging womanhood.
Shylock’s counterpart is Antoine (Craig Wallace), a black who proudly tells others that he was born a free man, a legacy of his father who fought and died a hero in the War of 1812. Although Antoine dresses like a prosperous businessman, he doesn’t have the resources of Shylock and borrows three thousand pounds to help his protege, Benjamin Bassani (Seth Rue), woo the wealthy Portia (Maren Bush). When Antoine fails to pay the money back on time, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. The dramatic court scene will determine the outcome.
Dani Stoller and William Vaughan
Shakespeare’s Merchant is still jarring to modern audiences; it’s portrayal of Shylock and its themes seen as anti-Semitic. Posner doesn’t water down these xenophobic comments, rather the audience gets a dose of what it’s like to withstand a constant barrage of slights and insults. During each performance, Boston points to someone sitting in the audience, asks the person’s name, then proceeds to use that name in a sneering, disrespectful way. (At the performance I attended, the person singled out was named David who admitted the barbs felt “nasty.”)
Shylock notes that during the reconstruction period in America, there were 1,500 Jews living in Washington, D.C. A parallel is drawn between the discrimination experienced not only by the blacks, but also by Jews like Shylock. The confrontations between Shylock and Antoine come off as a game of one-upmanship – who has suffered and continues to suffer the most.
(Left to right) Seth Rue, Dani Stoller, William Vaughan, and Maren Bush
The contrast between the haves and the have-nots plays out in the love affairs of the two young and seemingly mismatched couples. Lorenzo (William Vaughan), an uneducated and unpolished country boy, is attracted to the beautiful and intelligent, Jessica, who agrees to steal all her father’s cash and gold and flee with her beau to, of all places, Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Maren Bush and Celeste Jones
Meanwhile, Portia, who has conflicted feelings about blacks, is falling in love with Benjamin, whom she believes is white. Portia’s servant, Nessa (an excellent Celeste Jones), is loyal to her mistress but critical of her opinions. “She was born with blinders on and every day people tell her she has perfect vision,” Nessa says. When Benjamin finally tells Portia he’s black, Bush makes the most of the moment – her facial expressions changing from joyous to sadness several times before she delivers her final decision.
Despite the heavy themes, District Merchants has humorous moments, thanks not only to Vaughn’s antics as Lorenzo but also to Akeem Davis who plays Shylock’s mistreated servant, Lancelot. Director Michael John Garcés keeps this talented cast moving at a lively pace. There’s rarely a moment when we aren’t entertained or challenged by what we are witnessing on stage.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in `t.” Hamlet
The world is celebrating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and the Folger Theatre has joined in with a production that would probably have the Bard himself laughing in the aisle. For fans who appreciate all things Shakespeare, the Reduced Shakespeare Company needs no introduction. Those just discovering this troupe are in for a treat. The new production, a premiere of William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), continues the group’s humorous and creative way of weaving together Shakespeare’s plots and characters with contemporary references thrown in. The result is a lightning-fast, razor-sharp laugh-fest.
The fun starts immediately as the three sneaker-clad actors – Reed Martin, Teddy Spencer, and Austin Tichenor – bound onto the stage, holding aloft the famed lost play, half a foot thick, the pages loosely bound together. We’re told about all the references within this “faux-bio,” – 101 Venetians, The Real Merry Housewives of Windsor, and, of course, CATS. The many references to Disney are certainly funny but also underline how Shakespeare’s influence is a cultural phenomenon. Spencer, who spends time dressed as the Little Mermaid, Ariel, calls Walt Disney “a modern day Shakespeare” and runs down the similarities between Will’s plays and Walt’s films. The Winter’s Tale? Frozen!
This scripted play has the feel of improv, particularly those bits that involve audience members. Two arrive late and incur the players’ rebuke and empathy: “You rue the day you took the Metro.” Since the two offenders left during intermission, we surmise they were plants. But two others – dubbed Dale and Gale – were obviously not, called onto stage during one segment to wave blue fabric to create the sea while the actors shot water pistols into the audience. (If you are not inclined to participate, make sure you’re not in the front row.)
The costumes add to the frivolity, particularly those that have the actors cross-dressing. The changes are made in rapid fashion so that the flow of the play is never affected. Particularly appealing are the Weird Sisters from Macbeth, one a puppet that is manipulated by Tichenor and resembles the witch from Disney’s Snow White.
Part of the fun is seeing characters from different Shakespeare plays interact. We have Puck (Martin) from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a grudge match with The Tempest’s Ariel (Spencer); Hamlet up against Lady Macbeth; and Viola (Twelfth Night) alongside Richard III.
My one quibble is that the play runs a tad too long – one hour and 45 minutes with an intermission. Although the actors maintained their energy in the second act, several of the scenes, particularly those with Puck and Ariel, began to seem repetitive. Trimming fifteen minutes and presenting the entire thing in one act would have been a better approach.
Still there were plenty of laughs up to and including the end. And these days, heaven knows, we can all use a good laugh.
Photos by Teresa Wood
William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) Folger Theatre 201 East Capitol Street, SE 202-544-7077