You knew about the ancient grudge between the Montagues and Capulets and the merry war between Beatrice and Benedick, but did you know that Puck and Ariel had it in for each other? That’s one of the revelations of “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged),” the breathlessly irreverent and pun-filled romp that’s the latest offering from the Reduced Shakespeare Company. As we learn from this premiere production at the Folger Theatre, there is some seriously bad blood between Oberon’s and Prospero’s gofers — or there would be if either of these magical spirits had blood to begin with.
Indeed, the feud is so intense that it manages to trammel up Hamlet’s life coach, Lady Macbeth; the noted romantic power couple Dromio and Juliet; the interfering bad guy Malvol-Iago; and King Lear’s three daughters, the spell-casting Weird Sisters.
If these configurations of characters sound strange, there’s an explanation: Before writing the canonical versions of his plays, it seems, Shakespeare penned a sprawling piece of juvenilia that featured first-draft stabs at all of his major characters and plot devices. Scholars hadn’t known about the manuscript (written when the Bard was just 17) until the Reduced Shakespeare Company happened upon it, not long ago, in a parking lot in Leicester, England. Just in time for the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, this urtext has been brought to life at the Folger by the energetic performers Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor and Teddy Spencer. By dint of ruthless cuts, the actors have even whittled the original hundred-hour running time down to about 1 hour and 45 minutes (including intermission).
With the aid of lightning-fast costume changes, multiple wigs, water pistols, a kazoo, at least one puppet and the odd bit of audience-ribbing improvisation, the performers interpret a strange-but-familiar text that is mostly in iambic pentameter, much of it rhyming couplets. This script conjures up a tale of shipwrecks, incongruous romances, mishap-filled revenge schemes, separated twins, the Forest of Arden-Birnam and a misunderstanding that fleetingly replaces Caliban with the Taliban. Pinocchio puts in an appearance (Shakespeare loved to people his plays with Italians, you know). Falstaff has a fling with a ukulele-strumming Richard III.
The lickety-split pacing, cheerfully impudent tone and breezy allusiveness may put some audience members in mind of such Reduced Shakespeare productions as “The Complete History of America (Abridged)” and “The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged).” But this show is best suited to Shakespeare aficionados: Part of the fun lies in spotting the bits of quotation that have been gleefully mangled and sutured into passages along the lines of “O, if a muse of fire be the food of love!” (The Reduced Shakespeare Company made its name with “The Complete Works of Shakespeare [Abridged],” which debuted in the 1980s.)
Also diverting is the spoofing of the Bard’s favorite narrative conceits. One particularly droll sequence — enacted with wavelike fabric and the aforementioned water pistols — mashes up the “King Lear” storm scene with the distress-at-sea plot twists from “Twelfth Night,” “The Tempest” and “Pericles.” Thrown in for good measure are some allusions to “Gilligan’s Island” and Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” (In a running gag, a performer gets Ariel from “The Tempest” confused with Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.”)
This kind of cultural mayhem is best served in succinct doses, and “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged)” could stand to be abridged a little further. The 17-year-old Shakespeare may not have realized that brevity is the soul of wit — as this show asserts with a joke about a hyper-long-winded proto-Polonius — but we surely do.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged)” Written and directed by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. Costume design, Skipper Skeoch; lighting, Brittany Diliberto; sound, Brandon Roe. About 1 hour and 45 minutes. Tickets: $35-$75. Through May 8 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu/theatre.