Three witches (a puppet, Jonathan Finnegan and Ryan Woods) also play King Lear’s daughters. COURTESY JERRY DALIA

William Shakespeare’s Long Lost Play (Abridged)
By Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor
The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
The Greek Theatre, on the campus of the College of Saint Elizabeth,
2 Convent Road, Florham Park

Through Aug. 4

Shakespearenj.org

Free tickets available to people 18 and younger, and $30 tickets for patrons aged 30 and under. For information, contact the box office, 973-408-5600

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

Drowning by water pistol, then retaliation by water cannon.

That’s one of the highlights in the silly and successful pastiche “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged),” running at the Greek Theatre, the outside space of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the grounds of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Florham Park.

It’s a terrific, different, choice for the company. Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey often presents comedies from the canon in this space: a lighthearted “The School for Wives” by Molière; a trip into the forest of Arden, complete with the young company playing sheep, in “As You Like It.” The “Long Lost First Play,” wittily created by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, both founding members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, includes scholarly jokes for the knowledgeable and plenty of silliness for all.

The conceit is that a trio of actors, who travel around in a van they call “Titus,” for “Titus Vandronicus,” found the enormous manuscript next to a pile of bones in a parking lot in Leicester. (Even that is a Shakespearean in-joke: the bones of Richard III were found in a parking lot in Leicester in 2015). The manuscript was written in all six of the handwriting samples Shakespeare used! they exclaim. And, one of the actors tells us, the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., as they were showing them the door, said it isn’t like anything they have here!

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It must be Shakespeare’s first, enormous play, written at age 17. Every single character from Shakespeare is in it. And a few who aren’t: there’s Malvoliago, and Pinocchio (or was it Petruchio Pinocchio?).

There are two plots going: first, the conflict among the three male actors (who play all the roles, male and female, amazingly convincingly, with clever costume changes). Connor (Connor Carew) has made cuts to the manuscript, so it won’t be 40 hours long. Jonathan (Jonathan Finnegan) objects to every cut. Ryan (Ryan Woods) tries to keep things moving. The play within the play pits two fairies against one another: Puck (from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” played by Carew) and Ariel (from “The Tempest,” played by Woods) have a “merry war” between them — Shakespeareans will recognize the lines used by Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.” They compete to make mischief among mortals.

Ariel (Ryan Woods) holds Yorick’s skull from “Hamlet.” COURTESY JERRY DALIA

Ariel (Woods) first comes out dressed exactly like Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” (Later he says, “You’re all ready for a black Ariel, right?”)

There then follows a convincing disquisition on how every Shakespeare play has its Disney equivalent.

“Hamlet?” “The Lion King.”

“Merchant of Venice?” “Isn’t that the one with the offensive racial stereotypes?” “Yes.”

“Song of the South.”

Well, I learned something.

There’s also a wonderful moment when Ryan comes in dressed as a dolphin — it’s supposed to be a dauphin — but, he says, he’s doing it “on porpoise.” And then says “ba dum bum.” It’s that kind of show.

Eventually all 634 characters — played, you recall, by three people — are shipwrecked on an island.

Thanks to director Brian B. Crowe, one of STNJ’s best (in his 24th season there) action moves along, with many funny bits. As there often is on the outdoor stage, there’s an airplane bit: the actors disco dance while a stage hand holds up a sign that says “airplane.”

Brian Ruggaber’s funhouse set, complete with carnivalesque posters, and that much-decaled and decorated van, perfectly sets the mood. The play wouldn’t work at all without Paul Canada’s witty costume designs (was it his idea to make a third witch a Muppet held by the second, or is it in the script? In any case, beautifully executed, as are all the characters; Beatrice looks nothing like Ariel or Juliet). And sound effects by Kari B. Berntson add greatly to the show: Puck has a habit of “freezing” people briefly; each time complete with a cartoon-like sound. Jason Flamos’ lighting design not only tells us where to look, it sets an emotional tone: when Woods, as Ariel, holding a dead Puck, says the lines usually spoken by Lear over the body of his beloved Cordelia, the words are as powerful as ever, even in this romp.

The cast are beautifully suited to their roles. Carew often adds an movie-mobster tone to his roles, and sounds like a Scottish Miss Piggy for Lady Macbeth. Finnegan’s long-limbed nervous energy makes a tense pedant, and a giddy, boy-crazy Juliet. Woods, all muscle and rock abs, somehow makes a completely convincing Beatrice. 

However, all’s well that ends well. Shakespeare himself (Finnegan) shows up, determined to split everything up, and make individual plays. A wise decision in the long run.

In the short run, the mammoth play’s the thing.