Here’s a fun game: Stop someone on the street and ask them to name a play – any play. I’ll give you 10-1 odds that they name one of the works of Shakespeare.
The reason? They’re everywhere.
We see the Bard’s works in theatres large and small. We see him in schools. We see him in parks, in pubs, in the round, in the globe, in a box, and with a fox. And while it might be nice to see something new from Shakespeare, that’s asking a lot of a guy who’s celebrating the 400-year anniversary of his death this month.
Or is it?
Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor of the Sonoma, California-based Reduced Shakespeare Company are no strangers to Shakespeare’s work. But five years ago, while on a tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s vaults, they report that then-Director Gail Kern Paster told them finding an original manuscript of the Bard’s writing would represent the Holy Grail of Shakespeare scholarship.
The gauntlet had been thrown down. “And lo and behold, we found one,” says Martin.
That’s right — not long after their visit to the vaults, Reed and Austin actually dug up an original, un-published work of Williams Shakespeare. What a coincidence…
Therein lies the basis of RSC’s William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), beginning April 21 at Folger Shakespeare Theatre.
Yes, Shakespeare’s first-ever, yet-unpublished play has been discovered, and we get to watch it with virgin eyes!
“We are givers,” says Martin. “We have written the long-lost manuscript that we want to see.”
As for the play itself, it promises a little bit of everything that a fan of William Shakespeare could ask for, assuming you aren’t too precious about the plays.
“We actually go down into the complete works of Shakespeare to try to excavate authentic Shakespeare lines wherever we could in the text,” says Martin. “And then, of course, we changed it and bastardized it.”
Tichner points out that the play is written in verse so it reads and sounds like a traditional work of Shakespeare, with a number of lines lifted directly from his plays. But as for how good a job they do weaving their own text into the Bards, Tichner says, “I defy you to decide which is ours.”
He’s kidding, of course, and if it isn’t clear yet, these guys don’t take themselves too seriously.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t committed. Along with Bay-area actor Teddy Spencer, who makes up the 3rd in the trio, RSC worked hard to bring the production to fruition.
Martin recalls rehearsing anywhere they could find space – from basements to barns – and years of planning and negotiation to make their return to Folger Shakespeare Theatre.
Martin and Tichner even copped to “actor nightmares” throughout the production, not the least of which was related to the multiple characters they play and the wardrobe changes that are required. Fans, however, will recognize the challenge as a hallmark of Shakespearean acting.
“I think one of the things we do is that we don’t gussy up our productions with a lot of confections or production elements,” says Tichenor. “We do it as it was done in the day. Three guys playing all of the parts, with cheap props and bad wigs, and we’re going to interact with the audience wherever we can.”
With Shakespeare’s signature style in place, RSC sets to work mashing up Shakespeare’s best-loved characters for your enjoyment. A few quick examples: Ariel and Puck are sworn enemies, Richard III makes overtures towards Viola, and Lady Macbeth reprises her role as conspirator by urging Hamlet to kill his Uncle.
Which begs the question: Just who is the audience that RSC is trying to reach with their “long-lost” production? Is it casual fans? Diehards? Shakespeare scholars?
“Ideally they’re hammered and don’t have much discretion,” says Tichenor. “And [they have] plenty of disposable income,” adds Martin.
I hesitated before asking whether it was ok to compare William Shakespeare’s Long-Lost First Play to fan fiction, but both Martin and Tichenor agreed enthusiastically that it was a fair assessment.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the effort is amateur. Long-lost marks RSC’s 35th anniversary, and their tenth appearance at Folger. Though RSC is quick to rib Folger staff for waiting a little while to bring RSC back to the Capitol region.
“[The Folger] loved us so much that 22 years later they’re bringing us back,” Martin says. Tichner reminds him that when they last appeared at the Folger Theatre, then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was in the audience.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S LONG LOST FIRST PLAY
April 21 – May 8
The Reduced Shakespeare Company
at Folger Theatre
201 East Capitol Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003
Tickets: $35 – $75
Details and Tickets
Check for discounts!
“Spencer Tracey said [of acting] ‘say your lines and don’t bump into the furniture,” says Tichenor. “Now it’s ‘don’t bump into those damn pillars!’”
But that isn’t to say they aren’t excited to be in the space.
Tichenor adds that RSC will take advantage of every part of the theater, including the seating, balcony, and main stage alike.
“It’s more complicated than we’re used to,” says Martin. “But… What’s great about the Folger is you walk into that space and you’re immediately taken into Shakespeare’s world.”
That’s something that anyone – diehard or casual fan alike – can appreciate. As for the show, Martin promises “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll piss money away!”
And that’s the spirit that audiences can probably expect from RSC. If what you’re looking for is another straight-laced Shakespeare production, maybe this one isn’t for you.
But there’s a deadpan production of Shakespeare’s usual suspects happening nearly every week in this town, and many of them quite good.
What RSC offers is something different – a first-look at an as-yet unpublished “manuscript” from the Bard himself.
A bit silly? I certainly hope so. And for fans, what could possibly be better?