David Turner (thumbs up), Jeremy Shamos (with skull),and Peter Ackerman (jester hat) inThe Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
David Turner (thumbs up), Jeremy Shamos (with skull),
and Peter Ackerman (jester hat) in
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
There is something about William Shakespeare that cries out for parody. The Bard's work is not only universally familiar to English speakers, it is also universally understood to be "great"--that is, intellectually and emotionally profound, sublimely transcendent of its time and place, massive in scope and effect, yada yada yada. The plays have exactly the sort of unimpeachable reputation that makes satirists froth at the mouth, and Shakespeare has indeed come in for his share of drubbing over the years: from Eugene Ionesco's Macbett to Richard Nathan's How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth (a King Lear spoof produced at New York's West 104th Street Garden this summer) to The Skinhead Hamlet (a mini-masterpiece of unclear authorship that is widely available on line).

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) was originally presented by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a three-man team that has also offered truncated theatrical versions of the Bible and of American history. The show is notable for its sheer audacity: It takes on not one, not 10, but all 37 of Shakespeare's plays, cramming mostly successful lampoons of them into two hours of spastic entertainment. There is, of course, some cheating involved. For example, all of the comedies are combined into one giant plot involving a shipwreck, a powerful but mysterious Duke, and his "three sets of identical twins". Still, the desired effect is made; the show is a big, whooshing whirlwind of double takes, mangled plots, slapstick falls, and groaning puns. "Call me but love..." says Romeo in the first parody of the evening. "Hold on...Call you butt-love?" answers Juliet. This joke for 10-year-olds, repeated three times, somehow keeps getting funnier.

The Complete Works is pretty stupid, a fact for which it is completely unapologetic. None of the cast members has a particularly delightful stage presence, and only one--the boyish David Turner--establishes any sort of reliable comic persona. Also, many of the show's ideas are kind of lame: The history plays are presented in the context of a giant, "Who's-got-the-crown?" football game, while Othello is transformed into a rap song on the vaguely offensive pretext that its title character is a black person. The codpieces and fake bosoms are wildly oversized, the dick jokes are plentiful, and the intrepid Turner is called upon several times to mime vomiting on audience members.

But, man, is it hilarious. That's because the performers (the cast is rounded out by Peter Ackerman and Jeremy Shamos) know as well as we do that this is not brilliant theater, and they simply don't care. Their earnestness is palpable. The energy is fast and furious, with rollicking sword fights and spit takes, along with blink-and-you'll-miss-them characterizations. In a tremendously effective conceit which, I suspect, is owed to the original company, the vibe is quickly established that we're all in this together: The actors use their real names in introducing themselves to the audience, confessing their performance anxiety ("I don't want to do Hamlet," sulks Turner. "There's too many words!"). When it comes time for Ophelia to go crazy, they concoct an impossibly convoluted audience participation segment. By that point, you can't dislike the show; it's your show, too.

Somehow, between the butt-love jokes and the transformation of Titus Andronicus into a cooking show (sounds stupid, right? I was laughing at the time), The Complete Works displays an honest reverence for its subject. And some measure of real intelligence does lurk beneath the childishness. Whole chunks of Shakespeare's poetry are recited, not always in a mocking fashion; even in this preposterous context, the verse remains surpassingly beautiful, and the actors know it. Oh, and when it comes time in the Hamlet bit for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to enter, Ackerman deadpans: "Forget them. They've got their own play." This is a big, fun, stupid show with enough smarts--and more than enough good nature--to hold your attention.