MIDDLETOWN: WHEREFORE ART ROMEO? HERE.

For years, it’s been the resident community theater group at a local landmark church nestled in a corner of Middletown. But if that description suggests a slate of shows no more challenging than the umpteenth revival of Arsenic and Old Lace, then let it be known that the Stone Church Players aren’t about to be intimidated by the likes of William Shakespeare.

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RED BANK: MAKING ‘MERRY’ IN MARCH

Zuzanna Szadowski, Jason O’Connell and Nicole Lewis are the whole company in the Two River Theater staging of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ playing through March 26. (Photos by T. Charles Erickson. Click to enlarge.)

Whether it was an amateur outing in a gnat-infested public park or a top-ticket import from London’s West End, veteran observers of William Shakespeare’s works have by now gotten used to seeing the great dramatist’s plays twisted, teased and teleported into all manner of settings — more than a few of which might have made him flip his folio.

From Romeo and Juliet in modern Miami and Hamlet on Wall Street to a World War II Richard III and a Tempest on a planet named Altair IV, it seems as if there’s no place in space or time from which the Bard is barred — and at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, where last year we saw Pericles re-imagined as the world’s most epic saloon story, the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor continues for two more weeks, during its long-term stay at the sort of roadside motel that would normally specialize in hourly rates.

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RED BANK: TWO WAYS TO MAKE ‘MERRY’

Two River Theater hosts two very different takes on Shakespeare’s comedy ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ beginning with Saturday’s first preview of a three-actor free for all. 

When William Shakespeare put quill to parchment and began work on The Merry Wives of Windsor, he probably wasn’t laboring under the illusion he might create something to be dissected by critics and scholars for hundreds of years to come. The more immediate tastes of the popular audience were calling out to him, and with Wives the busy Bard had the opportunity to spin one of his most crowd-pleasing creations — Sir John Falstaff, the portly and roguish companion to the future king in the two parts of his historical drama Henry IV — into a rowdy (and cheerfully out-of-time) little knock-down farce.

Beginning this Saturday night, the Two River Theater offers Red Bank audiences not one but two rather unique takes on one of Shakespeare’s silliest comedies: one an intimately scaled three-actor adaptation that goes in search of the play’s “dark undercurrent;” the other an abridged full-cast version showcasing a talented company of high school age performers.

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RED BANK: BRUSH UP YOUR SHAKESPEARE

It’s one of William Shakespeare’s most raucous comedies; one that indicates that even the celebrated Bard wasn’t above cranking out a “popular demand” money shot. Picking up the character of Sir John Falstaff from the two parts of Henry IV — and plunking the portly, cowardly, boastful and besotted knight down into a farcical fracas of amorous misadventure and comical come-uppance — The Merry Wives of Windsor does its job within a relatively short running time, and with a relatively economical cast of 20 characters.

Or does it? According to Eric Tucker (pictured), co-founder and artistic director of NYC’s Bedlam Theater, the circa-1600 play can be brought to life just fine by a company of no more than three very busy actors — and tonight, February 13, Two River Theater offers the public a free-of-charge chance to watch director Tucker in action, as he works with his modestly scaled (but expansively skilled) cast in an Open Rehearsal at the Bridge Avenue arts center.

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LINCROFT: TAKING ‘MEASURE’ OF SHAKESPEARE

Shakespeare BCCKate Bader (center) performs a scene from “Titus Andronicus” during last year’s Shakespeare on the Lawn presentation on the campus of Brookdale Community College. The summer series returns on Thursday evening with “Measure for Measure.” (Photo by Brookdale Community College) 

Summer-Shakespeare-300x271Ask any Shakespearean scholar you happen to see: the historic incubator and natural habitat of the Bard’s classic tragedies, comedies and histories has little to do with stuffy theater boxes, scratchy formalwear, and snoozing patrons of the arts. Rather, it’s an experience that’s best realized in the open air — with un-amplified voices, improvised solos by Mother Nature’s minions, and an audience of engaged, enthusiastic (and ever so spirited) folks from all walks of life.

It’s a tradition maintained locally each year on one of the greatest, greenest spaces of the Greater Red Bank Green — and, beginning this Thursday evening, Shakespeare on the Lawn returns to the Lincroft campus of Brookdale Community College for a 15th annual edition, with a new look at William Shakespeare’s tragicomic “problem play” known as “Measure for Measure.”

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RED BANK: A BARD AT THE END OF THE WORLD

Actor-singer-composer-musician Rinde Eckert talks about creating the music for the Two River Theater production of “Pericles,” which begins previews this weekend. (Video courtesy of the Two River Theater.)

Even as passionate a cheerleader as Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias is forced to admit that Pericles, Prince of Tyre is “one of Shakespeare’s plays that has frustrated his fans” —  the result of its being “most obviously the result of a quirky collaboration with another playwright (or two).”

A sprawling smorgasbord of mythology and melodrama that boasts sensational plot points (incest! pirates! sexual slavery!) and more scenery than can be chewed through in a single sitting, the late-period romance fairly begs, as Dias declares, for “an interpretive team of theater artists who love it for the splendor of its quirks, while working to bring its disparate selves together.”

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RED BANK: FAMILIAR FACES RETURN TO TRTC

johndiasTwo River Theater Company artistic director John Dias, above, directs a musical that he co-wrote, and Madeleine George, below, the theater’s first Playwright in Residence, will see her comedy — which is set in Red Bank mounted next season.

madeleine georgeThere are encore appearances by favorite actors. Re-visits to the words and works of Shakespeare and August Wilson. No less than three shows making their world premieres — including one set within “a larger-than-life version of Red Bank.”

When Two River Theater Company unveiled its 2016-2017 schedule of productions Monday night, it did so in a fashion that’s become a real rite of spring on Bridge Avenue: with the company’s celebrated artistic director John Dias joined on stage by creative people representing the comedies, dramas, musicals and multi-media experiences that will illuminate Two River’s stages beginning in September.

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LINCROFT: BARD BIRTHDAY BASH AT BCC

BCC Shakespeare-GroupLocal actors stage a performance of William Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at Brookdale Community College in 2013. The school’s Performing Arts Center is inviting everyone to get into the act, during the sixth annual Shakespeare Read-A-Thon in April.

Press release from Brookdale Community College

On Thursday, April 21, Brookdale Community College will celebrate the 452nd birthday of William Shakespeare, with the sixth annual Shakespeare Read-A-Thon at the Lincroft campus.

Between 6 to 8 p.m., residents of all ages are invited to dress as their favorite Shakespearean character and join friends, family and fellow community members in a collaborative reading from the Bard’s works, held inside BCC’s Performing Arts Center.

This year’s program will celebrate the women of Shakespeare, shining a spotlight on the most memorable moments involving female characters such as Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, Juliet, Miranda and Desdemona. Individual and group readings of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are encouraged. Spectators are welcome as well.

“This annual celebration encourages people to try out their reading and acting skills, but more so to conquer their apprehension over Shakespeare’s language,” said Brookdale English Professor James Cody. “It shows that Shakespeare can be fun.”

Refreshments will be served during the April 21 event, for which parking in Lot 1 is recommended. For more information, contact Professor James Cody at jcody@brookdalecc.edu or call (732)224-2681.

RED BANK: SPEAKING OF SHAKESPEARE

Press release from English Speaking Union of Monmouth County

On March 1, some 35 high school English and Drama teachers from Monmouth, Ocean, Mercer, Middlesex, and Somerset counties will congregate at Two River Theater, for a full-day workshop in Teaching Shakespeare. The 9 am to 5 pm session, a partnership between The English-Speaking Union and the world-renowned Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC,  gives teachers the tools they need to bring Shakespeare to life in their classrooms.

Sponsored jointly by The Monmouth County and the Princeton branches of The English-Speaking Union, with generous support from Two River Theater Company, this workshop is just one of many educational activities being held worldwide in 2016 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

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LINCROFT: A BLOODY GOOD BIT OF BARD

WintersTaleThe annual Shakespeare on the Lawn (represented here by last year’s production of  WINTER’S TALE) returns to Brookdale Community College this Thursday with the tragical history tour that is TITUS ANDRONICUS.

Titus-Poster-1Presented to audiences in such plein-air settings as the original Globe Theatre, the works of William Shakespeare have always carried echoes of nature’s gleeful chaos, even under the most climate-controlled of conditions. And every year at about this time, an army of thespians takes to the patios, parks, lawns and beaches of this land to bellow the Bard’s iambic pentameter beneath the setting sun and stars.

It’s a tradition that has a long track record in the annual Summer Shakespeare Ensemble productions at Brookdale Community College, now in their 14th season.

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RED BANK: TWO RIVER INTROS NEW SEASON

DirdenStoneRechnitzReturning Broadway veterans Brandon J. Dirden and Jessica Stone — plus rookie playwright Robert Rechnitz, pictured with wife and fellow Two River Theater Company founder Joan — are among the creative forces powering a just-announced 2015-2016 season of shows on Two River stages.

It’s a highly anticipated rite of spring in Red Bank — one that John Dias jokingly referred to as “this totally kooky annual event” — but when the artistic director of Two River Theater Company played host for the 2015-2016 Season Announcement on Monday night, he was entirely serious in first thanking the “loyal, passionate” audience members who “want to be the first to hear what we’re doing each year.”

Kicking off in mid-September, and comprising eight productions on two stages of TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, it’s a schedule that boasts fresh takes on familiar classics, and first looks at a couple of world premiere works. There’s some engagingly quirky casting; the return of several fondly regarded members of the extended Two River family — and a debut original work by a forever-young upstart who holds a special resonance with the Red Bank audience.

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M’TOWN: HIGH SCHOOLERS ‘SPEAK THE SPEECH’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPress release from English-Speaking Union of Monmouth County

On February 28, a dozen high school students each took the stage of the Middletown Arts Center and, without scenery, costumes or props, brought William Shakespeare’s words to life. It was the 25th annual Shakespeare Competition for high school students, sponsored by the Monmouth County Branch of the English-Speaking Union, and the stakes were high.

Each of the contestants had practiced and prepared, each had studied and rehearsed, and all of them performed wonderfully. Despite the competition, the atmosphere among the students was mutually supportive.  Their audience included teachers, parents, and members of the ESU, as well as five theater professionals who served as expert judges.  Each student presented a sonnet and a short monologue.

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LITTLE SILVER: MUCH MORE ADO, AT RBR

MuchadoaboutnothingBenedick (Patrick Monaghan, Little Silver) kneels before his Beatrice (Katherine Kennedy, Avon), as the Red Bank Regional VPA drama majors rehearse their lead roles in the school production of Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, opening November 20 at RBR.

Press release from Red Bank Regional High School

It’s a bit more than three years since William Shakespeare’s classic couple Beatrice and Benedick — a pair of combatants in “a merry war” known as Much Ado About Nothing — were last seen onstage around the greater Red Bank Green. But while the occasion (the season opener for the professional Two River Theater Company) and the talent (Tony-nominated superstar director Sam Buntrock; Obie-winning leading man Michael Cumpsty; Tony-nominated leading lady Kathleen Meisle) set the bar high for all who dared to follow, that’s hardly the sort of thing to deter the students of the Visual and Performing Arts program at Red Bank Regional High School.

Beginning on the evening of Thursday, November 20 and continuing for two more performances through November 23, the VPA drama majors present the Bard’s circa-1600 comedy of battling sexes, courtship intrigues and (eventually) reconciled lovers as their fall dramatic production on the RBR Theatre.

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NAVESINK: BRIT FARCE, SCOTTISH PLAY

NavArtsStoneChurchThe venerable venues of the Navesink Arts Center (long ago, the original Middletown Library) and the “Old Stone Church” at All Saints are the scene for a new season of community theater this weekend.

Between its rustic old landmarks, the mist-shrouded banks of Many Mind Creek, and the hillside trails of the Hartshorne Woods, the Navesink section of Middletown Township seems a natural draw here in the season of the Great Pumpkin Latte — and among its many autumnal delights is the annual kickoff to a new interlude of intriguing community theater; both from the area’s longest-established stage troupe, as well as from a relative upstart with a history-steeped connection.

It all begins this Friday, October 3, when the Stone Church Players return with a new take on a classic that’s old as the ruddy moors — William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth. The allegedly accursed “Scottish Play” has been blamed for as many freak backstage accidents as it has elevated thespian careers — but while the Bard’s blood-drenched drama of murderous ambition and ill-met-by-moonlight madness seems a perfect fit for All Saints’ Memorial (the historic “Old Stone Church” at the crossroads of Navesink and Monmouth Avenues), the producers have cooked up a cauldron of surprises for theatergoers.

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LINCROFT: WINTER WONDERLAND AT BCC

Winters-Tale

The Summer Shakespeare Ensemble returns for its annual plein-air production at Brookdale Community College, as A WINTER’S TALE continues for four more evening performances, July 17 – 20.

Is it a tragedy or a comedy? A breath mint or a candy mint? Scholars refer to William Shakespeare’s late-career play The Winter’s Tale as a “problem” play; a twisted romance that traces a dark and unhappy path for many of its characters (there’s that notorious stage direction “exit, pursued by a bear”), while not being above injecting a dose of magical serendipity in the service of a happy ending. The play, which opened last weekend as the latest in the long-running Summer Shakespeare Ensemble series at Brookdale Community College, continues just the way the Bard meant it — out of doors, under the sun and stars, on the lawn adjacent to Larrison Hall on the Lincroft campus — for four more performances, July 17 through 20.

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LITTLE SILVER, M’TOWN: LIBRARY LEGENDS

eileen-moon-021814-500x375LEGENDARY LOCALS OF RED BANK author Eileen Moon visits the Little Silver Library on Monday evening…while Next Stage Ensemble brings a little Shakespeare to the Middletown Township biblio.

There’s the pioneering African American journalist T. Thomas Fortune, whose historic home is currently the subject of an intensive rescue effort. Industrialist Sigmund Eisner, whose legacy includes a public library, a Galleria, and a former chairman of the Disney entertainment empire. Trailblazing attorney Florence Forgotson Adams, the father-and-son Drs. James Parker, the Dorns, the Irwins — and famed illustrator James Avati, the “Rembrandt of the Paperbacks” remembered in a 2011 feature that appeared here on redbankgreen.

They are all among the Legendary Locals of Red Bank profiled by veteran newspaperwoman Eileen Moon in her new book, an entry in the series from Arcadia Publishing that the author will discuss in a free Monday night reading/ signing appearance at Little Silver Public Library. Going up at 7 pm, it’s part of a busy itinerary by the equally legendary reporter and editor, who in a recent feature on redbankgreen described her concept of a Legendary Local thusly: “It takes a strong personality, and a vision, and a risk-taker sometimes, to change what is into some new evolution of that.”

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RBC STUDENT DOTH GIVE GOOD REPORT

Olivia Mullen ducked into a Red Bank store to get out of the wind so she could recite a bit of the Bard for redbankgreen earlier this week.

By DANIELLE TEPPER

As Olivia Mullen knows, the works of William Shakespeare are a fundamental component of any acting student’s growth as a performer. The Red Bank Catholic junior has shared passions for drama and music, and to her ear, Shakespeare embodies both.

“Shakespeare’s work is beautiful,” she told redbankgreen this week. “It comes to me almost like a song. I’m not nervous performing it.”

Mullen’s heartfelt appreciation of the Bard of Avon won her a spot in the 29th annual English-Speaking Union‘s National Shakespeare Competition held in New York last month.

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BALDWIN & PAL: UNPLUGGED AND ELECTRIC

dias-baldwin-and-cumpsty-photo-by-mike-mclaughlin2Alec Baldwin and Michael Cumpsty (right) join Two River Theater artistic director John Dias (left) for an “unscripted and unrehearsed” UNPLUGGED fundraiser at the Bridge Avenue artspace Monday night.

By TOM CHESEK

According to Alec Baldwin, there’s a certain comfort to be found in the eight-shows-a-week Broadway grind, in that “at 8pm I know exactly where I’ll be, who I’ll be with, and what I’ll say.”

As for an admittedly “confessional” Michael Cumpsty, the British-born actor allowed that “I feel more myself when I’m playing someone else.”

The two stage veterans were in a casually confessional mood on Monday night — with several hundred eavesdroppers listening in on the unscripted and unrehearsed conversation — as Two River Theater hosted a full house for an intimate evening of scenes and stories presented under the name Baldwin. Cumpsty. Unplugged.

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A MERRY WAR ABOUT ‘NOTHING,’ AT TRTC

buntrockcumpstyTony-nominated director Sam Buntrock, left, and Obie winning actor Michael Cumpsty bring Shakespeare’s comedy MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING to the Red Bank stage beginning this weekend at Two River Theater.

By TOM CHESEK

Flash back to the evening of May 2. The folks at Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company were proudly unveiling the 2011-2012 season of mainstage entertainments at their branded Bridge Avenue arts center — their first under the purview of artistic director John Dias, and the first to offer an expanded schedule of seven productions (plus a holiday-season family show) at both of the building’s performance spaces.

For several magical minutes, however, the auditorium named for TRTC founders Robert and Joan Rechnitz was the bully pulpit of a special guest — British-born actor Michael Cumpsty, a major presence on Broadway and Off-Broadway stages (he won a 2006 Obie award for playing no less a role than Hamlet) and a sought-after specialist in the works of one William Shakespeare.

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