'Simpsons' writer goes from Bard to worst

Published on Saturday, 17 June 2017 21:30


BRISTOL - “Somewhere, in a small town theatre, a group of actors are performing ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ (arguably Shakespeare’s worst play…!), but one of the cast members isn’t happy. His career is going nowhere, he’s sick of the show, and he wants out.”

That’s how the Bristol (U.K.) Shakespeare Festival describes a new play co-written by Bristol (Connecticut) native Mike Reiss and Nick Newlin. The play, appropriately titled “Shakespeare’s Worst,” will premiere July 4 at the festival.

Reiss is a comedy writer best known for his work on “The Simpsons.” He said the idea for the play originated when he saw the phrase “Shakespeare’s worst” in an article and started thinking about it.

He settled on “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and turned it into what he calls “Mystery Science Theater 1600,” referring to the classic TV comedy in which the characters make jokes about bad movies.

“So this one character in the play knows it’s terrible and he just keeps up this steady stream of commentary to the audience about how bad the play is,” Reiss said.

With the help of his college friend Newlin, a Shakespeare scholar who has written condensed versions of the Bard’s plays, Reiss expanded what started as a random idea into a full- length play.

“There are literally hundreds of Shakespeare festivals going on all over the world so I just sent it off blind to all of them,” he said. “The one that responded was Bristol, England, and the director is from the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

Reiss plans to see the show and talk with the audience afterward.

“It’s just so funny to me because I was very happy growing up in Bristol and my whole life I’ve been hearing about Bristol, England, and I’ve always been curious about it. The coincidence of it really tickles me, and actually the people in Bristol England are very tickled too,” he said.

“The funny thing is I sent it out to all these Shakespeare festivals, most of them didn’t respond at all, but I got a very indignant letter from the Hawaiian Shakespeare Festival that said ‘You know, it’s hard enough getting people to like Shakespeare without you writing a play like this.’ An indignant Hawaiian was something I didn’t know existed,” he joked.

“And literally right after that I got the acceptance from Bristol, England, and so I write back to the Hawaiian guy saying ‘They just announced they’re doing my play in England.’ He wrote back saying ‘Well, that shows what I know,’” he said.

“I’m hoping other Shakespeare festivals pick this up, particularly the Hawaiian Shakespeare Festival,” he added.

Reiss has a short video on Youtube in which he talks about “Shakespeare’s Worst.” In it he makes a joke about a guy named Mervyn Payne, but Reiss explains viewers shouldn’t take that part seriously because Payne was actually a real person who attended Reiss’s alma mater, Bristol Eastern High School.

“For the purposes of this joke I needed an English-sounding name. He barely knew me. I’m sure he will be very surprised to see me talking about him 40 years later,” he said.

After years of writing for television and movies, Reiss has been concentrating on plays lately but comedy is always his forte. “It is absolutely all I’m good for in this world,” he said.

“Shakespeare’s Worst” is his third produced play.

His first was “I’m Connecticut,” which premiered at UConn and then moved to the Ivoryton Playhouse.

His second play was “Comedy is Hard,” which was also produced at the Ivoryton Playhouse. His fourth, “I Hate Musicals: The Musical,” opens this September in Ivoryton.

“I have this secret hope that my old high school, Bristol Eastern, will do one,” he said. “If they should do one of my plays, I’ll come to see it.”

Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or scorica@bristolpress.com.

Posted in New Britain Herald, General News, New Britain on Saturday, 17 June 2017 21:30. Updated: Saturday, 17 June 2017 21:33.