KPBS AIRDATE: July 24, 1996
You really don’t have to know — or love — Shakespeare to appreciate the antic insanity of “The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged),” but, as the old Borscht Belt joke goes, “It vouldn’t hoit.”
On the most superficial level (and there is plenty of that — don’t look for any genuine depth or incisive commentary here) — it’s raucous, riotous and just plain, goofy fun.
But if you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s comedies, for example, you will certainly appreciate all 16 or so of them being rolled into one grand miniplay, with multiple sets of twins being duped by an incomprehensible series of mistaken identities. It’s called, ‘The Comedy of Two Well-Measured Gentlemen Lost in the Merry Wives of Venice on a Midsummer’s Twelfth Night in Winter.” Or, “Cymbeline Taming Pericles the Merchant in the Tempest of Love As Much As you Like It for Nothing.” Or (and I wish they’d quit while they were ahead) ‘The Love Boat Goes to Verona.”
If you know history, even if you don’t know Shakespeare’s histories, you’ll get a big kick out of all the Bard’s historical plays and all their multiple parts distilled down to a fast-paced football game with the crown being tossed about from monarch to monarch. As happens so often in this production, the physical comedy gets so furious that the words are often swallowed up in the mêlée. But the rap version of “Othello” changes the pace a bit, and still gets the laughs.
I could’ve have lived very well, thank you, laughing all the way, without the biography mix-up between Shakespeare and Hitler, or the overly-long, Three Stooges meets Benny Hill rendition of “Romeo and Juliet.”
But these are mere poetic quibbles. As puerile and adolescent as the humor gets, these three actors are extremely talented, as each showed in a serious recitation of at least one Shakespearean soliloquy. These guys are good. Never mind that the humor descends to the level of butt-cracks and phallic symbols. In truth, so did Shakespeare’s.
And this isn’t some fly-by-night romp. It’s been 15 years in the writing and performance, starting as a 20-minute lark at Renaissance street fairs and working its way up to 37 plays in under 2 hours at the renowned Old Globe Theatre. Boy, between this and “American Buffalo,” Globe audiences are getting a bellyful of off-color language. By and large, they seem to be loving it.
Anyway, the upcoming convention has given the writers a chance to update again. Bob Dole is invoked several times, and there’s reference to Prince, Michael Jackson, George Bush’s vomit, Baywatch, the Clintons’ billing records, Kathi Lee’s sweatshops and the ever-popular Jenny Craig.
The Atlas-wielded globe atop the set is a very funny bit. Chris Duva, who looks and talks like a surfer dude, is boffo as all the Bard’s broads. John Ellison Conlee looks like John Goodman, but is faster and funnier. And Jon Patrick Walker is a damn credible Hamlet, among other leading men. We don’t really need all the exposition and explanation. Just let these guys loose — which is basically (in a controlled way) what director and co-writer Jess Winfield has done — and let them make marvelous mockery out of Masterpiece Theatre and academic pomposity.
And don’t you dare leave your seat before the encore. After a seriously reduced “Hamlet,” there’s a yet-more condensed version and then… they do it backwards. That alone is worth the price of admission.
By the way, if you heard these inspired lunatics when they were here with me in the KPBS studio, go see the show. It’s even funnier with all the sight-gags.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.