The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman Beaudin
March 26, 2011
During intermission at The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), I overheard the woman next to me say that she was enjoying the show even though she didn’t really like Shakespeare and had avoided taking English classes while in school, sticking only to the requirements. I found it equally enjoyable, as an English major who has been in a couple of Shakespeare plays and taught some of them (with great enthusiasm) to high school students.
The concept of the show is exactly what you can guess from the title: A small cast performs all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, in drastically abridged form, in about two hours. The first act covers all of the comedies, all of the histories, and most of the tragedies. The second act is dedicated to Hamlet. The tone of the play is also exactly what you’d expect. It’s silly, often slapstick. The play is pretty witty, and it usually captures at least the essence of Shakespeare’s play. (For example, Titus Andronicus is performed as a cooking show with human parts as ingredients). At some moments, I found the script too broad-stroked, for example, Macbeth performed by two golfers with Scottish accents or the comedies combined into one play that is not acted out but just summarized. I enjoyed the second act more than the first, mostly because—at about 40 minutes instead of about two—Hamlet seemed so well-developed compared to the others.
The piece requires a lot from the three actors, Michael Mraz, Ann Stanchfield, and Bill Strohmeier. The language moves at a rapid pace, shifting from Elizabethan English to today’s English, from speaking as a Shakespearean character to speaking as an actor and speaking in asides to the audience, in unpredictable turns. Also, the style of the show, broad comedy, is difficult. A comedic actor must go far enough to be funny, must remain truthful enough to convey some sort of point, and must be controlled enough to maintain some order. The performers in this show sometimes succeed at obtaining this perfect balance, and sometimes they go too far (and it gets messy).
It’s worth the struggle, though. When a comedy goes way out into the stratosphere of silliness and then unexpectedly returns to something down to earth, it is a powerful effect. One moment where the show achieves this power is when Mraz gives the “What a piece of work is man” monologue. The monologue starts out disconnected (purposely) and then in the middle, the actor starts to realize what he’s saying. I loved this. Because his discovery was legitimate, I discovered the meaning (and power) of what he was saying along with him.
In Bill Strohmeier’s performance, one thing I liked was when he talked directly to the audience at the top of the show and then again at the top of Act 2. He has a relaxed manner and delivers funny lines (we have toilets in the bathrooms) deadpan, making them funnier. I also liked his performance as Hamlet. I was really able to connect to the ending line, “The rest is silence.”
Ann Stanchfield is funny as the “absent-minded” professor, and I liked her ditsy tone as she throws analysis and historical facts into the mix. I also liked how she really gets into the Othello rap.
The director, Nancy Fisher, has the actors moving throughout the audience, running up and down the aisles, and interacting with individuals by directly addressing them and even bringing some volunteers on stage. This interactive quality makes the show fun because we get to be a part of it. She also choreographs the many entrances and exits and character changes pretty smoothly, which is not a small feat. I do wish Fisher had tightened some of it up, though. As I say above, it sometimes becomes messy and chaotic. I know that some of that is the result of the show itself, but I think if it were cleaned up, it would actually be funnier.
Over all, Shakespeare fanatics and Shakespeare avoiders will like The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). This production provides a fun and informative night of theater.