Picnic Baskets in Hand, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Sets the Stage...
What could be better than watching a play by William Shakespeare outdoors in the summer? Try adding a glass of wine and some cheese to the mix. Theatergoers can do both at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, which encourages patrons to picnic when they come to see a show at their outdoor stage summer series.
“Shakespeare was originally performed outdoors, so we’re keeping that heritage alive,” says Patrick Toon, one of the performers in this season’s outdoor stage feature, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised).”
Toon and two other actors are burning through 37 of Shakespeare’s epic plays in a whirlwind 97 minutes at the outdoor venue situated on the edge of the College of Saint Elizabeth’s campus in Morristown.
While lounging on the grassy rows of the theatrical space, modeled after a Greek amphitheater, you’ll take in stunning treetop views overlooking the region, and even catch some nearby planes coming in for a landing overhead.
“When the sun goes down, the heat goes away and we usually have a cool breeze that goes through the amphitheater,” adds Jeffrey M. Bender, the show’s director. “It becomes a wonderful, cozy night of theater with your friends, picnicking out under the stars.”
Everyone in the audience will be relaxing, but on stage, Toon and his co-stars will be working up a sweat, and it won’t be simply because of the summer heat.
Written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield of the Reduced Shakespeare Company in 1987, the play lovingly spoofs the Bard’s masterpieces and is physically demanding, as it relies heavily on slapstick and comedic speed.
Toon, 42, recalls being wiped out by performing it in a production 12 years ago. “We would all go into the dressing room and pant for the entire 15 minutes,” Toon says of the other performers and himself. “We wouldn't talk. We would take off as much of our costumes as we could and drink water and not speak.”
Knowing that performing this piece on the outdoor stage—while being a decade older—would provide even greater challenges, Toon set steep physical goals for himself to prepare for the role. He ran a 50-mile race in Washington, D.C. to build endurance, and even took to singing in New York’s Central Park to strengthen his outdoor voice.
“I thought that the best physical shape I can be in, it’s really going to give me a leg up,” said Toon.
The training is serving him well, as Toon gets to take on some of the most iconic characters in literature, including, but not limited to, Romeo, Laertes, Polonius, Julius Caesar, and King Richard III (for one line).
“Everything I've ever conceived of those characters, I get to stuff into five lines. So it's intense,” Toon says. “And they come one after another; you don't have time to think about it. I just jump in and swing for the fences every time I’m at bat.”
In addition to playing characters who have been beloved for centuries, “Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised)” also gives Toon and Bender the chance to add their own spin to the spoof—that’s where the “(Revised)” comes in.
A large portion of the show’s comedy rests on relating Shakespeare to pop culture references. Since its debut in the late 80s, the play became wildly successful due to its mass appeal, and also widely produced, based on its low production cost for theater companies (it’s performed by a cast of three). The playwrights, however, saw the show was becoming dated, so they refreshed the show’s cultural benchmarks in 2011, and thus appended the title with (Revised). Not only that, but the playwrights gave permission for anyone licensing the play to add their own jokes to reflect the cultural times.
In a collaborative effort, Bender and his cast have peppered the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production with references to the Broadway mega-hit “Hamilton,” as well as nods to “Game of Thrones” and “Star Wars.”
Comedy aside, Bender earnestly believes in “Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised)”’s ability to introduce new audiences to the world of the Bard who may never have experienced it before.
“This show brings a broader spectrum of audience members to the theater that can appreciate it more,” Bender says. “The Histories are described through a football game. Some people that might not know Shakespeare might know football better. They might appreciate that connection and the correlation with Shakespeare, and that might hook them.”
Shakespeare-philes won’t be left parched in the humid July air though. Bender says for the informed theatergoer, the inside jokes are half the fun. “If you already know Shakespeare, you'll know even more of the jokes that are happening on stage.”
“The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised)” is on stage at The Greek Theatre (at Convent Station), 2 Convent Road in Morris Township Convent Station, NJ 07961, now through July 31. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 4:30 and 8:00 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.