Putting the Ham in Hamlet
Trading slings and arrows with Jeremy Shamos of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).
I recently bore witness to what was, measure for measure, the funniest, smartest zany evening of theater I've seen in many a fortnight. The three cast members of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)--Peter Ackerman, David Turner, and Jeremy Shamos--take on 75 characters, fiddle with 100 props, wear trunkloads of costumes, and reduce the Bard's 37 plays and 154 sonnets into an entertainment just under two hours in length.
I caught up with Shamos as he was coming home from a commercial audition, and we talked about the important things in life: theater in general, how to keep a show fresh, and the comic possibilities of Vanna versus Britney.
JIM CARUSO: How was your audition? Did you get it?
JEREMY SHAMOS: I doubt it. I don't go to commercial auditions to get the job, I go because I love the humiliation of selling myself like a piece of meat.
JC: You, your cast, and the show are fantastic. I've been telling everyone I know that they have to run to see it. I laughed my gizzard off! How did you come to get this job?
JS: It's a very traditional story: I auditioned. It's kind of a hard show to audition for--out of context, the material is actively unfunny, so the audition was deadly. The callback was slightly more fun, but it's hard to generate camaraderie and spontaneous wit with two people you met four minutes ago.
JC: Did the folks you were auditioning for help out by laughing to get the mojo flowing?
JS: Not so much; they had seen it all a thousand times. I'd say they were supportive. They cast all three of us blindly, but the chemistry is very important. The premise of the show is that we're making it up as we go, so we need to seem like genuine friends. For the record, I can't stand the other two guys. But because I'm an actor...and quite a good one...I can pretend that they're my friends night after night. [laughs] I'm kidding, clearly. David Turner and Peter Ackerman are really incredible. We had a four-week rehearsal period and our bonding was instantaneous. We share the same sense of humor; it's a tribute to our director, Jeremy Dobrish, and his ESP in finding the right guys. Plus, there was no ego involved when we were coming up with new ideas. Most of the shtick comes from the script, which was developed in the '80s, and there were some rather dated cultural references. Not that Vanna White and Newt Gingrich lines aren't funny...but now we talk about Britney Spears.
JC: What's it like doing this show night after night?
JS: Every actor in every play in town can say their show feels different every night; but, with this show in particular it's completely new because the fourth wall is nonexistent.
JC: And the audience plays a huge part in the proceedings. Have there been any unusual occurrences because of that?
JS: Most of the things we find hilarious are actually rather disturbing, like a loud, wheezy laugh that has a "maybe-you-should-get-that-checked" sound. That's what we find funny. When we hear something like that, we consider being less funny so the audience member doesn't go into some kind of arrest.
JC: Do you continue to find new moments, or is the show set?
JS: We're constantly finding new bits to keep it fresh. We've all had mishaps with a costume or a prop, and that always gets a huge laugh. It's very tempting to rig a mistake every night to get a laugh, but there are enough of those moments built into the play.
JC: Watching the show, I was stunned at the amount of energy you all expend. It must be hellish on two-performance days.
JS: After I made it through the first hundred shows, I started to have nights when I got to the theater and couldn't imagine doing what I was about to do. The show has a life of it's own, though: Once you step out on the stage, it's like a conveyor belt of activity. The human machinery backstage is amazing, too. Costumes are being ripped off and pulled on, we're running to make our entrances...there's never time to doubt our energy or commitment to the piece. It sounds like a cliché but, if you're in the moment, you're safe. At intermission, we love to talk about why certain things work better some nights than others; we try to not analyze it to death, but what's the point of doing it if we're not learning from it? All three of us are fascinated with comedy in general. Why did something get a huge laugh one night and a titter the next? It usually has something to do with one of David's wigs.
JC: Will it be hard for you to attend a Shakespeare play after skewering so much of his work? I mean, after all, you all do a rap version of Othello.
JS: I saw Othello at the Public Theater. To be frank, I didn't think it had enough of a beat. It was hard to dance to. Does that answer your question? We do a solid, 15-minute version of Romeo and Juliet, so that play might be hard to watch in the future, especially since David is the ultimate Juliet. I know I'll resent the actress playing that role.
JC: How have hard core Shakespeare fans reacted to the show?
JS: We've only had one negative response: David got a "shame on you" letter filled with much vitriol. The lady ranted that Shakespeare was a genius, that we would never be talented enough to do any of his plays, and that what we did was silly. I'm not sure what she was expecting, considering the title and our poster, which has three guys wearing primary-colored T-shirts jumping in the air. I wouldn't expect Ian McKellen doing soliloquies, but that's just me. That was our one and only anti-fan letter; everyone else has loved it. And we get mail, believe me. One lady from Chicago wrote and offered us all free haircuts and paraffin waxes if we ever take the show there, so we're holding out for that Chicago gig!