A contemporary, madcap take on Shakespeare at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Dwyer

William Shakespeare. When you ponder that name, it can conjure different things, depending on the person. For those who love theater, there is no one who occupies a more special place in the pantheon of theater. That would be the opinion of most, as his plots and dialogue got into complex issues and he was aware that when writing a comedy, there needed to be some honest drama and vice-versa. Dramas always had elements of awkward comedy as a counterpoint to the tragic. His work reflected reality and did so in the most poetic of terms.

But for some, upon hearing his name, a glaze comes over the eyes that is not dissimilar to myself watching “the game,” whatever that means, on ESPN. Understandably, I may need to know more about sports. I know it would benefit me. New Year’s resolution: I will try.

But if you want to get a hilarious take on Shakespeare, and I mean sidesplittingly funny, you must see “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” And that is especially true of those who never quite got it. Because, now you will in this raucous, slap-happy production at Music Mountain.

It’s as if the Marx Brothers got lost on the way to the opera house in “The Night at the Opera,” and arrived instead at the theater next door where Shakespeare was playing. In that fast Marx Brothers style, three Shakespeare enthusiasts attempt to pack into one show 37 Shakespeare plays, including “Two Noble Kinsmen” and “Henry VIII,” which most believe to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher. The latter took over Shakespeare’s acting troupe, “The King’s Men” after Shakespeare’s passing. (Yes, I am a theater geek.) The show was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1987.

Louis Palena does a brilliant job re-staging the production and as one of the actors. Jordan Brennan delights as the wildest of the three performers. Bubbling with humor and anxiety, he is on pins and needles as he exuberantly switches from character to character. Ed Honan has the driest of wits, and is a period between the two exclamation points of Louis and Jordan. There is a nice visual and aural contrast with his stockier and stoic demeanor. To see him as Hamlet is a delight, just in the casting. And getting back to Palena, no one seems more easygoing on a stage than he. There are quite a few interactions between cast and audience. He and his partners could not be better with this important part of the show. And one of the reasons is because of the special energy that already exists in this space between these actors and their audience. The topnotch quality of the acting is without question, but an intangible is that they are players playing a home game. There are local references made and updates to the script that speak to who they are and we are.

Improv is best when high levels of trust exist. Due to the albeit very structured, improv nature of much of this, these actors (like the Marx Brothers) have an advantage of trust that many actors would not. And because of that, the comedy in this production takes off like catapult.

Highlights of the show include the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” an amazing hip-hop rap synopsis of “Othello,” with all of the history plays done as an American football game. Yes, sports fans, you even get to see the game. And a “Hamlet” that you will never forget. Brennan was coaxed into being Ophelia in the show, and he brings to the role a charmingly florid performance. Another highlight is the dialogue played inside Ophelia’s head by the id, ego and superego.

The set is minimalist. The props and costumes are clever. But “the play(s) is the thing” and Palena, Brennan and Honan are a force to be reckoned with. Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo could not have done it better.

“Get thee to a nunnery!” I mean, “Get thee to this theater!” Music Mountain Theatre has three of its best actors crushing it, as the walls tremble with guffaws — yes, guffaws! Huzzah!

The show runs through Sunday, Jan. 13, and tickets can be purchased online.

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