In an already Tudor-esque venue, the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, the Sandy Spring Theatre Group has put on Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged). The plot: William Shakespeare’s very first play, written when he was just 17, has been discovered in “a parking lot in Leicester, England (next to a pile of bones that didn’t look that important).” (That legitimately kills me.) The one problem is that the manuscript is 100 hours long, so its discoverers have decided to abridge it to only 90 minutes, and wacky hijinks ensue. The show is made up of Shakespeare’s “writings” as well as the discoverers’ squabbling about their creative choices in abridging it.
It’s an appealing premise with real promise, reminiscent of the musical about writing a musical [title of show], but Long Lost First Play encounters the same problems: the meta-joke is fun for maybe 15 minutes but doesn’t evolve beyond its premise and gets old quickly, despite energetic performances. The actors’ energy, genuinely hilarious physical comedy, and deeply impressive memorization of all those rapid-fire lines, as well as the delightful set design and vivid lighting, remain radiant despite a shallow, lagging script not worthy of their talents.
Actors Vanessa Markowitz, John Van Eck, and Nadia Palacios occupy three main roles as the Shakespeare enthusiasts who have decided to abridge and perform William Shakespeare’s early musings. The result: a purposefully jumbled play. Unfortunately, while it can be done, making a joke about something not being funny or entertaining doesn’t make it funny or entertaining. There are many of these in this show. When The New York Times called the Folger performance of this show “wickedly funny,” and Broadway World called it “an absolute resolute hoot,” I have to believe it’s possible to make this show funny. I then have to conclude that it comes down to ridiculously precise, thoughtful performance.
Long Lost First Play is a breeze of basic character references with little depth. However, I think that the Sandy Spring Theatre actors can wrestle through this to help their energetic performances contribute to the narrative success of the show as a whole. Where it makes sense in the script, what if Falstaff were played in such a way that alluded to his depth? Sir John Falstaff is one of the greatest characters in literary history, and deserves more meat to his reference than “Hey! Remember the fat guy who was friends with Prince Hal, or something? Pretty funny guy, huh?” The Sandy Spring Theatre actors are giving their work tremendous physical energy already but could try adjusting their performances to play with Shakespeare’s ideas. The reasons Shakespeare is regarded as such a genius, and why his beloved, deeply human characters have stood the test of time, are not alluded to in this script. They could give these Shakespeare characters — of course, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s versions of Shakespeare characters — more than exaggerated SNL takes on the one-line summary of each character’s whole deal. The good news for these actors is that there is also a great deal more comic fodder when the character’s entire personality is available for lampooning, rather than just one or two traits. There’s so much there. It’s Shakespeare. Have at it.
With regard to the part of the show about the act of putting on a play, the show suffers from the standard problem in most meta-humor media, like [title of show]: repetition of the same couple jokes. On the whole, Long Lost First Play has numerous jokes that are truly funny, or are intentionally bad with a genuinely funny reaction from the actors to it. About half of the jokes, though, are milquetoast and/or dated and/or unintelligently non-PC for little payoff. For example, the “actor who is supposed to be playing Caliban misreads it as ‘Taliban’ and comes out in a headscarf doing a voice” part needs no comment. I feel genuinely bad for these excellent actors, who had to memorize 100+ minutes of material simply not worthy of their superb line memorization and delivery skills.
Bruce Hirsch, director and sound designer, creates a seamless and immersive listening experience, with no microphone issues or sound effect errors anywhere to be found. Given the variety of sounds in the show, and their importance to the script and the storytelling within, his ability to pull them all off is deeply impressive. Lighting Designer Steve Deming’s work is vividly on display, with multicolored lighting selected pitch-perfectly to illuminate the wacky story on display. According to the show program, he has been collaborating with community theaters for over two decades, and it easily shows. Deming’s work, executed with Light Board manager Cor Estoll, is one of this production’s strongest points. Also, Set Designer Matt Ratz and Set Construction manager Chris Fogle have created beautiful, highly detailed illustrated panels. Their work is the best set painting I’ve seen in a community theater production.
The energy brought by these actors to a bad script is admirable and impressive, and their joy is infectious. I think the problems in the script could be mitigated with some more subtleties in their already sparkling, demanding performances. There are little things they can do to bring out Shakespeare’s genius, and I would be on the edge of my seat to see how this tremendously talented trio would do it.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) plays through April 30, 2023, presented in partnership with Sandy Spring Theatre Group at Gaithersburg Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD. Tickets ($22, $20 for students 15–21, $15, for youth 14 and under) can be purchased online.
Recommended for ages 12 and up.
COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required.