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CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr(abridged)
Fst, fny, irrvrnt! It's a compleatly hilarious nt to be mssd parody guided by Shkspr's maxim: Brvty is the soul of wt.
That's my abridged review of Shakespeare & Company's two-hour roller coaster ride through all of the Bard's 37 plays. Since it's also having an abridged run at the Duffin Theatre in Lenox, I probably should stop here and let you buy your ticket without further ado. In case I haven't convinced you that a good time will be had by all, here is my more usually expansive take on this Shakespearian show of shows.
The production, is an adaptation of the much-produced world-touring comedy by Jess Borgeson, Adam Long and Daniel Singer of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Director Tony Simotes follows the original Compleat Works in executing its zany ambition to cover Shakespeare's entire oeuvre. To follow his "louder, faster, funnier" credo, there are the company's own Marx Brothers (but with perfect Elizabethean diction and voice projection) -- John Beale, Jonathan Croy and Joseph Hansen.
The first act devotes a whole ten minutes to Romeo and Juliet. It then squeezes the sixteen comedies into a single play, The Comedy of Two Well-Measured Gentlemen Lost in the Merry Wives of Venice on a Midsummer's Twelfth Night in Winter. Next Julius Caesar is polished off as a "romantic thriller" the cursed "Macbeth" is done in Scottish accents and Titus Andronicus metamorphoses into a bloody cooking demonstration while title character of Othello becomes song and dance man. There's no pretense at equal time for each play, with some merely mentioned to fulfill the mission of "compleatness."
The theory behind condensing the comedies ("they're not nearly as funny as the tragedies") proves correct when Act II presents the Histories as a football game. The premise is that "With all those kings and queens killing each other off, and the throne passing from one generation to the next, it's exactly like playing football, but you do it with a crown."
The merry clowns reserve their biggest coup d'comedy for last. Their fast, funnier and backward rendition of Hamlet includes audience participation. At the packed performance I attended, their "victim" from the front row was a girl who couldn't have been more than twelve. Using audience members as part of the act is risky at best, and even more so when it involves a youngster. But since Simotes and his merry pranksters built so much general good will and high spirits by poking fun even at themselves, the risk paid off.
As a minor quibble, the self-parodies, while fun, are so relentless that they eventually smack more of shameless self-promotion than parody. I should add, that the audience seemed not to mind in the least.
The performances warrant nothing but praise. Comedy like this, with lightning fast costume and wig changes and lots of pratfalls is tough work but this trio makes it all seem remarkably easy. While John Beale (the guy with the glasses) gives a performance that's sheer perfection, his sidekicks also display pitch perfect comic timing.
In the final analysis, what elevates everything above sheer shtick is the actors' and director's intimate relationship with Shakespeare's words. Enough of that sensibility is likely to rub off even on those for whom Shakespeare recalls tedious high school lessons, and send them to the honest-to-goodness Romeo and Juliet opening next Saturday at Shakespeare & Company's Main Stage, or the upcoming Coriolanus.
For reviews of other Shakespeare productions, see our unique quotations page: Shakespeare's Little Instruction Book