The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield. Directed by Jonathan Croy. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Ryan Winkles, Josh Aaron McCabe, Charls Sedgwick Hall in a frivolous moment; photo: Kevin Sprague
I'm not really involved in most of the events of this play."
Ryan as Juliet; photo: Kevin Sprague
When Desdemona speaks those words in the truncated hip-hop/rap version of "Othello" that is performed in this wonderfully wacky play we understand the multiple levels to which the line takes us and takes the actor. Othello is a dreadlock Rastafarian and Iago is a leather-biker and no self-respecting Desdemona would get involved with either of them. It is that way through much of Shakespeare and Company's outrageous howl-out-loud edition of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a play this company has produced several times in the past but never with this much upfront humor. In two hours plus a few minutes all 37 plays in Shakespeare's canon have come and gone across the stage. If it wasn't for the laughter that might be a bit much to take.
But there is the laughter. That is wonderful. All of the comedies (14 plays in all) are done simultaneously in a wondrous edition. All of the histories (11 plays) are provided in a non-chronological order but as a long history lesson medley of dramatic theater. The rest of the canon comes at us in blast after blast of special presentations.
Ultimately everyone cross-dresses - you have to, Shakespeare insists; after all in his day women were not allowed upon the stage so the female roles were always played by men. Ryan Winkles is a provocative teen-age Juliet; Josh Aaron McCabe is a manic, Los Angeles-based valley girl Ophelia on speed; Charles Sedgwick Hall is an asp-demented Cleopatra. These are only some of the outrageous versions these three men play in the course of the show. McCabe's Ophelia has a hispanic brother, Laertes, also played by McCabe, for example.
With so many roles to play it is hard, two hours later, to always recall who played whom. . .or whom played who. One absurdly wonderful moment, late in the second act, was all in the hands of Hall who, as the actor Charls Hall, broke down and was unable to continue with the performance of Hamlet, in the role of Hamlet. Overcome with emotion he was let off the hook and didn't have to deliver "To be or not to be. . ." for as is pointed out by McCabe, it is an absurdity that a character bent on revenge for his father's death and intent on killing the people responsible, would take a moment to contemplate his own potential suicide.
There are roles in this show played by these men that are good roles for them in the real world of Shakespeare plays. Some of them have performed some of them; others lie in their futures. What is so wonderful about this show, though, is the opportunity to both deliver the goods and still be campy, to make light of the work they do on a regular basis in front of an audience that knows their work as actors in Shakespearean roles. These are not funny journeymen actors, but the real deal able to punch holes in the work for which they are known and respected and never lose their credibility.
They do this under the very complete oversight of director Jonathan Croy, himself a consummate actor and funny man. His sharply witty eye has given this company some of its finest comic plays. His dramatic delivery in disparate roles from Shakespeare to contemporary authors has been a constant joy to watch. That he can bring so much freedom to his actors in this play is a tribute to the talent inherent here, for there are always four men on the stage in this three-man show. Croy is evident in all of their work.
Basic costumes are a joy in this show because Govane Lohbauer has a sense of humor that matches those of the men she is dressing here. The Scottish Play has men in kilts carrying golf bags. Othello has those perfect touches of Rastafarian wig and leather vests. Wigs from the costume department stock shelves are often the perfect touches to the actors' vision of their roles and sometimes the wigs do some acting-up on their own.
Matthew E. Adelson's lighting work in this show is perfection and the scenic design by Patrick Brennan and Jonathan Croy is lovely, with glamorous drapes dominating the look of the show. Musical touches, brought in by Croy and Michael Pfeiffer are silly and delicious. A special round of applause goes to the backstage crew who handle the quick changes of costume, makeup and wigs along with manipulating set pieces and props. Two of them took a bow and they deserved the recognition.
ONE WARNING: If you plan to see this and to also see Romeo and Juliet at The Mount, see R&J first. After seeing the version that basically opens Complete Works you will not be able to sit through the actual play with a straight face. This comedy troupe's work is that remarkable. In fact, I may not be able to see Hamlet for a fortnight.
Charls as Hamlet; photo: Kevin Sprague
Josh as Antony; Photo: Kevin Sprague
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) plays in repertory on the Tina Packer Stage at Shakespeare and Company, located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA through August 24. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.