William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and a heap of sonnets in his lifetime, and his works have never gone out of print in the 400-something years since his death. His theatrical works form the backbone of the English language, and many of his characters are practically bywords for concepts such as ambition (Lady Macbeth), lust (Antony and Cleopatra) and eternal love (Romeo and Juliet).
And yet you've never really seen Shakespeare performed until you've watched a Romeo in Chuck Taylors (Jamie Kurth) motorboat the fake bosoms of a male Juliet in drag (Joshua Nash Payne).
Welcome to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) — a.k.a. The Compleat Wks of Willm Shksper (Abridged) — which takes the entire canon of the Bard, wads it into a 90-minute ball and fires it over and over again into the faces of a thoroughly entertained audience. It's a devised theatrical piece that could easily be dismissed as a gimmick but instead rewards the viewer with in-jokes, dirty jokes and more high-concept jokes than you can shake a spear at.
Director Suki Peters and her cast of three (Kurth and Payne plus Ben Ritchie) tackle the work — and The Works — with gusto and keenly honed wit. Kurth plays bloody Titus Andronicus as a spot-on Julia Child and Julius Caesar as a jowly Richard Nixon. Payne gets most of the female roles, running to and fro in awful wigs and clattering falsies, but he takes the time to personalize each character by throwing up on a different audience member for each. Ritchie is our supposed Shakespearean expert, who earned his academic stripes at an online diploma mill and knows less about the works being performed than anyone in the room, with the possible exception of Payne's protean hurler. There's audience participation, an extended chase scene and a telephone gag that is bizarrely sweet in its denouement.
All of this slapstick and bazooka barfing would be an enjoyable enough send-up of Shakespeare's corpus (and an honest tip of the cap to the man's own love of low humor), but the entire second act is given over to the cast's stalled attempt to complete the sweep by performing Hamlet, the one play they've yet to do. This botched attempt at the great Dane is itself an extended riff on Hamlet's own indecisiveness, as the cast members bicker and psychoanalyze one another (and members of the audience) as they fumble their way toward action. It's meta-comedy on meta-Shakespeare, and the trio pulls it off with aplomb. When the famous soliloquy is finally essayed, it is as affecting and fraught with meaning as it would be in a serious dramatic environment.
So sure, come for the laughs, plentiful and layered — but stay for the acting. It ain't easy to perform a tense Scandinavian psychodrama in the middle of all that comedy, but these three make it appear effortless. Even when one of them is puking all over the front row.
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