Local Production Brings Classic Plays Down to Our Level
Over Labor Day weekend, pool noodles and a woman in bright blue tights flailed wildly on the Great Lawn in front of Elliot Hall. The artist behind this chaotic display? Shakespeare, of course. Full of butt jokes, tailored to include topical references, and exhaustingly acted by three people playing hundreds of roles, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is 97 minutes of hectic hilarity. The play manages to include the content of every single Shakespeare play accurately (well, more or less), while simultaneously subverting each individual genre. Tragedies become comedies as the three actors rap the plot of Othello clad in tacky ‘80s fashion, and turn even the morbid Titus Andronicus into a cooking show. Shakespeare’s histories, confusing and royalty-centric as they are, are streamlined into the action of a single football game, with each king killing the former for the crown, ending with Henry VIII grabbing the crown (after taking a brief pause to cut off his wife’s head).
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) also twists the comedies themselves. Instead of playing them up for laughs as most of the rest of the show does, the play emphasizes Shakespeare’s tireless repetition of themes, character tropes, and plot devices by combining all of the comedies into one single play, titled The Comedy of Two Well-Measured Gentlemen Lost in the Merry Wives of Venice on a Midsummer’s Twelfth Night in Winter, or, Cymbeline Taming Pericles the Merchant in the Tempest of Love as Much as You Like It for Nothing. In a wild flurry of characters, costume changes, and vocal acrobatics, the three actors stage all 16 comedies in a matter of minutes.
The play continues at this rapid pace until, just when it looks as though it will end ahead of schedule, one player realizes that an important work has been neglected, perhaps the most widely-known and most influential of all Shakespeare’s works: Hamlet. Conflict erupts on stage when one of the players refuses to perform Hamlet, citing the seriousness and weight of the play’s plot as too intimidating to take on in such a short amount of time. However, for the title of the show to be accurate, the play must be performed. After a heated argument filled with screaming, threats of violence, and the literal and figurative dragging of the Hamlet-opposer, the dissenter is chased off, prompting an “impromptu” intermission.
The second act of the play is then devoted entirely to Hamlet. First, a long and detailed, though still completely absurd, version, consumes most of the act. “Ending” early, the players proceed to perform Hamlet three more times: faster, even faster, and finally backward, reversing not only their actions but even their lines, repeating them back to front. Though this reversal is hard to keep up with and strange to witness, the ease and confidence with which the actors reverse the words and movements they had performed three times already was, nonetheless, impressive.
No less impressively, the actors kept up an air of easy relaxation and rapport throughout the performance, which was sometimes expressed through the irreverence of the jokes and sometimes through their interactions with the audience. Most of the show hinges on this breaking of the fourth wall: from people being invited on stage to be part of the play, to the running joke of one of the three actors constantly miming vomiting on the crowd, to their full usage of the space — actors ran through and around the audience, borrowed programs from people, and even pretended to be audience members. Though I had seen the play several times before, it was a different and uniquely hilarious experience. In true Shakespearean fashion, these wise performers know themselves to be fools.