WASHINGTON, D.C.: “My holy grail would be to find an actual manuscript of a Shakespeare play, in his hand,” mused Georgianna Ziegler, associate librarian and head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, while leading a tour through her institution’s vault in 2010. Luckily for her—and for Bard enthusiasts—she happened to be speaking to some of the most reverent Shakespeare desecrators around, members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. “Because we are nothing but givers,” quips the RSC’s Austin Tichenor, “we decided to hurry history along and create the long-lost manuscript we hoped to find.”
Thus was born William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), written and directed by Tichenor and his noble RSC kinsman Reed Martin. Long Lost, featuring Tichenor, Martin, and Teddy Spencer, receives its world premiere at Folger Theatre April 21–May 8.
Though the troupe spends most of its time on the road or on the Internet, technically the RSC’s home base is Sonoma, Calif., so how did these three gentlemen of Sonoma choose D.C. for the show’s first official staging? Debuting the play at the Folger, says Tichenor, was a no-brainer. Not only because that’s where the idea for the piece was hatched or because Folger Theatre’s design is inspired by Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Theatre. As Tichenor explains, “The combination of scholarship and live production is exhilarating,” he says of the organization, which boasts the world’s most extensive collection of Shakespeare materials. “The Folger celebrates all the many ways we engage with Shakespeare—through study, performance, and as in our case, parody and satire—and they aren’t precious about him or insist there’s only one way to interpret him or his works.”
The piece itself imagines what a newly discovered work by the Bard might look like, a mashup of existing characters, tropes, and dialogue similar to longform Shakespearean improv, but with the flair of the self-proclaimed “Bad Boys of Abridgment,” who have been performing their signature Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) since 1987. Perhaps surprisingly for a company with Shakespeare in its name, Long Lost is only the RSC’s second play focused on the Bard. Of course, Martin and Tichenor, who respectively joined the company in 1989 and 1992, have included references to the playwright’s work in a number of other abridged comedies, such as the song “Born Great,” with lyrics by Tichenor and music by composer Nick Graham, in 1998’s The Complete Millennium Musical (abridged):
Unlike most of the RSC’s shows, Long Lost follows an individual storyline: the tale of a feud and “merry war” between A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Puck/Robin Goodfellow and The Tempest’s Ariel, and “how their rivalry creates supernatural chaos among characters from all of Shakespeare’s plays,” says Tichenor. These characters include Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, Richard III, Twelfth Night’s Viola, King Lear and his three daughters (who double as the weird sisters from Macbeth), “and, of course, Dromio and Juliet.”
In Tichenor’s eyes, it’s fitting that Long Lost is part of the global commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, with two performances on the day itself, April 23, during the run’s initial weekend. Says Tichenor, “It’s exciting how much is going on to celebrate Shakespeare’s legacy, and honestly we’re thrilled to be a part of it. Long Lost is definitely a bit of fan fiction—our fantasy of what a 17-year-old Shakespeare might write about and what kind of interactions between characters we’d like to see. Like Shakespeare and his sources, we’ve taken what was useful to us from the canon and changed what suited us.”
And how faithful a celebration is Long Lost? “At least 60 percent of the play is actual Shakespeare, sometimes repurposed and put into weird and interesting new contexts, and most of the play’s in actual verse, either Shakespeare’s or ours. I dare you to tell the difference!” jokes Tichenor. “No, I don’t. It won’t be hard at all.” Ay, there’s the rub.