“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” playing at the New American Shakespeare Tavern through September 2, would appear to be an attempt by three actors to perform all the works of Shakespeare in a single evening. Although the production and its setting are charming and there are some funny moments, strangely enough there’s too little Shakespeare in it. Even as the subject of satirical summary, his work feels pretty distant. We’re left with lots of comic antics that often bear only some vague relationship to Shakespeare. If that’s not your bag of ducats, then there’s not much for you to enjoy in the performance.
This is not to say there are no funny moments. There are lots of them, and regular Tavern actors Nicholas Faircloth, Matt Felten and Daniel Parvis are an energetic team that plays multiple roles (the Bard wrote 1,122 of them, they point out). “Titus Andronicus,” done as a Paula Deen cooking show (of course Lavinia’s rapist needs just a little more butter before being baked into a pie), is flat-out hilarious. A reading of a Wikipedia entry on Shakespeare that mashes up his life with details from Hitler’s and Walt Disney’s works well, too.
One of the play’s strengths is to demystify the playwright. Even those who have never seen or read a Shakespeare play outside of high school won’t feel intimidated, which is great. There aren’t too many knowing winks to the initiated, which would be disastrous. One character describes in a serious, fawning academic tone how Shakespeare “distilled multiple theatrical traditions in his work,” while another undercuts it with “plagiarist.” But once the man is demystified, we never really get a glimpse at what made him great. It’s hard even to get a sense of the variety in the plays. The comedies are lumped together as one skit, as are all the histories.
Some of this play’s devices, such as a bit of audience participation to demonstrate Ophelia’s psyche, must have seemed fresh and inventive when it premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987, but they seem a little creaky now.
The Shakespeare Tavern is a nice setting for the show — there’s a closeness between audience and performers — and many in the audience seemed to enjoy the fun, silly romp. But perhaps the setting is also problematic in that the same stage regularly produces the actual works of William Shakespeare. My expectations were different heading in. For some reason, I was expecting a collection of distinct songs and skits, and I was looking forward to learning more about Shakespeare and some of his less familiar plays in a fun and interesting way.
The show might play better at a comedy club or black-box theater, where its smidgen of Shakespeare would work better with the set of raucous comedic skits. Here, we feel that he’s being pushed away, which is disappointing. These aren’t parodies, satires or even comic reductions; really, we’re playing outside Shakespeare’s room without ever really going in.
Watching three comic actors doing physical comedy that riffs on the work of Shakespeare isn’t a bad way to pass an evening, but there seems to be no overarching take on the work itself. The humor is derived entirely from the absurdity of trying to perform all of it in one night. Although this certainly has its moments, in the end, the mere fact that Shakespeare wrote a lot isn’t that funny or interesting.