CEDAR CITY — Where do I begin? How do I review a show so filled with mirth and downright belly laughs that come from the absolute shock and surprise of creative imagining of a long lost first play of William Shakespeare, without revealing parts of the show and thereby ruining the fun? This new show, entitled William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged), is from the RSC (no, not that one, the Reduced Shakespeare Company) who are responsible for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. If you’ve ever seen that show, you have some idea of what you’re in for from this new creation.
As a brief introduction, I quote from the program: “An ancient manuscript is discovered in a treasure-filled parking lot in Leicester, England (next to a pile of bone that didn’t look that important). It turns out to be the long lost first play written by a young Shakespeare and includes his most famous characters and most familiar speeches. It is the literary holy grail, but because it’s one hundred hours long and contains multiple unwieldy storylines, three friends decide, as a public service, to abridge it down to a brief and palatable ninety minutes or so, and for the three of them to perform all the roles.” In other words, strap in! It’s going to be a bumpy ride!
Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production is a regional premiere and the first by any company outside the author’s own production. Director Christopher Edwards has worked his three actors, Riley Shanahan, Marco Antonio Vega, and Luke Stiffler into as tight and cohesive a crew as any on stage. These three actors portray 47 characters in the space of 90+ minutes. And a lot of the fun comes in the appearance that they are making it up as they go along. I have been a longtime fan of the RSC and have seen many productions of Complete Works, and while it may appear to be created on the fly, successful productions are very tightly rehearsed. Part of the fun is knowing that this can’t be improv-ed, all the while feeling like you are seeing a new and once-in-a-lifetime experience. The new Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theater, with its thrust seating, is the perfect setting for this show, providing every patron an intimate seat to the fast-paced action and rapid-fire humor. And you never know… you may be pulled into the action yourself. Having some knowledge of the Shakespeare canon will enhance some of the humor, but is by no means necessary to enjoy this show. Anyone can still laugh themself silly in this show.
I have to give a big hand to the scenic designer Jo Winiarski who created the mini-Shakespearean theater and to costume designer Alex Jaeger for all the quick change costumes that allow these 47 characters to come to life. In fact the entire technical staff (lighting designer William Kirkham, sound designer Barry G. Funderburg, and stage manager Terence Orleans Alexander) deserve recognition. This show would not be the success it is without a very wonderful crew all working at the top of their game.
There is no doubt that anyone who has seen Complete Works will compare these two shows, and I can’t say that from a writing standpoint that the script by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor for Long Lost First Play is superior to the original RSC show. Complete Works still stands as a classic and a benchmark against which all Shakespearean parody is measured, but the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of Long Lost First Play comes about as close to perfection as I think this play can get. I have not laughed so hard at any show in a very long time, and I’m still laughing at the memory of it—and expect to for some time to come. This production is a comedic masterpiece.