Herbert Wolff Reviews "The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)"

Aug 12, 2014

When classifying a humorous play, we generally label it into one of two categories: comedy or farce.  In comedy we recognize people or events to which we can relate, understand and even laugh at ourselves.  Farce, on the other hand, is an exaggerated humor or ridiculous action, leading us to laugh at what is being said and performed on the stage with little relationship to our lives or personal behavior.

This basic description may be helpful if you are planning to attend a performance of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), now in a fine production at Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Shakespeare abridged?  Not really.  Shakespeare parodied?  Oh, yes.

The show was written – or perhaps I should say “put together” – by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield in 1987, and has become a favorite of school drama departments and adventuresome community theaters.  The first act revolves around excerpts of individual lines from numerous Shakespearean plays – 36, to be precise.  The Bard’s phrases are delivered out of context, by three actors who are often in drag, wear outlandish wigs, display acrobatic skills and speak in rap as well as rhyme.  The “fourth wall” disappears throughout the performance, with the actors frequently speaking directly to the audience.

This could be considered Shakespeare 101 for those required to get a credit for being exposed to a literary work beyond Playboy or Eat, Pray, Love – and an encouragement for Shakespeare scholars to consider rereading Titus Andronicus.  The extractions from “the kings” – Richard, Lear and the Henrys – and from Othello – are particularly clever.

That’s Act I of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged).  Now, for Act II, we go into depth.  The three actors present an eclectic capsule version of Hamlet.  We learn that Hamlet’s father was murdered - Ophelia is advised to get thee to a nunnery - and the scull that Hamlet retrieves from the gravedigger,  (Hamlet knew the guy).

Is this madcap production fun?  Decidedly so.  It is creatively directed by Shakespeare & Company veteran member, Jonathan Croy.  The cast – Charles Sedgwick Hall, Josh McCabe, and Ryan Winkles – deliver their lines with aplomb, assuming the voice and personae – male, female, or whatever – of the roles that they parody.  Their pacing and characterizations are so well-defined that they ensure no lapses in the humor.  And when the cast solicits audience participation in Hamlet, the entire theater “becomes a stage.”

Additional credit for this production must be given to the costume designer, Govane Lohbauer.  Her dozens of get-ups are as much in the spirit of the play as the antics of the performers.

In the words of William Shakespeare, this production is a hoot.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) plays now through August 24 at Shakespeare & Company Lenox, Massachusetts.

Herbert Wolff studied under the guidance of Lee Strasberg and subsequently had roles with summer theater companies in upstate New York and on live television. He is former vice president of International Television Association and former Chairman of Massachusetts Advisory Council on Scientific and Technical Education. Herb continues to write, direct and appear in stage plays. For 25 years he has been the on-air reviewer of theater and opera productions for WAMC Northeast Public Radio.

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