The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Well, the title pretty much says it all. Three actors, as themselves, present (as promised) 37 plays in 97 minutes. The Complete Works was created by the Reduced Shakespeare Company and first performed in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1987. The deconstruction and consolidation of Shakespeare’s works would prove a smash hit in England, playing at the Criterion Theatre in London for nine years. The play is currently enjoying a return engagement this summer at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Boscobel.
After a brief poll of the audience checking to see who has read King John, the play gets things started with that deathless classic Romeo & Juliet, establishing the sort of evening you are in for. There are the actors, some costume pieces, wigs and in this instance, a wheelbarrow full of props (not to mention the sassy prop mistress/actress). They find various ways of distilling the various tragedies: Othello is performed as a rap, Titus Andronicus as a cooking show, Macbeth is reduced to a single duel complete with overzealous Scottish accents, etc. The comedies are combined into one singular play, as most of them are pretty much formulaic. The history plays are presented as a football game. And so on and so forth…
The script allows room for considerable improvisation and there is no third wall to the action, with consistent acknowledgment and awareness of the audience right from the very start. This later devolves into audience participation in the second act, which is entirely devoted to Hamlet, plus three encores. The sonnets receive their moment in the spotlight – on an index card to be passed around the audience from row to tow. Plus, they also manage to sneak in a bit about the Shakespeare Apocrypha. (That professor of mine should be thrilled).
The three actors taking on this mammoth lampoon are Chris Edwards, Jason O’Connell and Kurt Rhoads. Together, they play an immense number of characters from all plays. Think Man #1 and Man #2 from The 39 Steps, a similarly British romp with considerable parallels. It’s silly, it’s wittty, it’s farce. All three work well with one another, a testament also to director and Artistic Director of HVSF, Terry O’Brien. Back when I sat in on rehearsal, I got to see the four of them work on various sections of the piece. They ran various bits again and again, each time becoming more solid and infinitely funnier just from an hour in the rehearsal room.
Edwards particularly shines in his solo moments with the audience, particularly after the other two have run off at the end of Act One. He’s also a superb foil to the lunacy of the other two (though he’s a riot as Juliet’s nurse). Rhoads displays unexpectedly hilarious gravitas in his sly deconstruction of serious Shakespearean actors, running the gamut from Jack Benny to Charlton Heston. O’Connell gets to do the most outrageous aspects, splaying Shakespearean ingenues as dithering, vomit-prone sprites and tapping into an accomplished trunk of celebrity impersonations. (Two of his standouts include Queen Gertrude as played by Carol Channing and King Claudius by way of Jack Nicholson).
The play is for the most part hilarious, though some sketches work better than others. For instance the set-up for Titus is infinitely funnier than the punchline. O’Connell comments at one point that the tragedies are funnier than the comedies, and in this case that is true. The Hamlet portion is funny, but a bit overlong. However, it’s worth it for the three encores, each one subsequently more outrageous than the first. In spite of those minor quibbles, it doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the sheer lunacy at hand.
During the second act, three things crossed my mind: The 39 Steps, Monty Python and Anna Russell. All three, much like this work, are extracted from an uncanny British sense of humor, reveling in absurdity and steeped in comic tradition and wit. The first two complement Complete Works in its style and structure. Opera parodist Anna Russell popped in my head because she did one of her famed opera analyses on the fictional Verdi opera Hamletto, or Prosciuttino, which itself is a thinly-veiled deconstruction of Hamlet.
I once again brought my friend Dana along, who as an average theatregoer stressed the overwhelming amount of fun she had, especially evidenced at her inability to contain her laughter at Ophelia’s drowning. It’s a rare crowdpleaser, like the sort of small-scale theatrical events that used to dominate Off-Broadway in the days of yore. If you know someone who hates Shakespeare, bring them to this one. If they really hate it, put them in the front row. If you love Shakespeare, you should already have your tickets.
Meanwhile, I return for one last visit this Thursday for the third and final entry in the HVSF season, Pericles.