The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare (Abridged)
nytheatre.com review by Josephine Cashman
April 19, 2006
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s latest production, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (running in repertory with Glyn Maxwell’s Wolfpit) is a charming way to spend an evening. With tongues planted firmly in cheeks, three plucky performers attempt to tackle all of William Shakespeare’s works—his comedies, dramas, histories and sonnets—to varying degrees of success. Everyone onstage is clearly having a wonderful time.
Brian A Costello, Matt Neely, and Scott D. Phillips share the task of playing and narrating Shakespeare’s works, have plenty of comic panic attacks, and whirl the audience through a crash course in Shakespeare and his plays. Their love of the play is evident, their enthusiasm is infectious, and they hurl themselves into the comic fray with fearlessness and abandon. The audience was with them from the outset.
The set, sound, and lights are kept simple, but the costume design by Nicole Frachiseur is marvelously over-the-top and inept, in keeping with the (intentional) struggling and haphazard style of the production. Dominating Robert Klingelhoefer's set is a picture of William Shakespeare himself that has almost a Mona Lisa-like quality; the Bard seems sometimes to be laughing with the performers, and at other times to be comically appalled at what his plays are being reduced to.
Most impressive is when Costello, Neely, and Phillips engage the audience in an interpretative character analysis of Ophelia. Also strong is Titus Andronicus as a Julia Child-inspired cooking show. Othello, as performed by a third-rate Eminem, and Macbeth, sporting one of the worst Scottish accents in history, are both laugh out-loud experiences.
Director Michael Surabian has assembled a fine ensemble cast, and for the most part, they handle the language and challenges deftly. I was sorry that the actors didn’t have more room onstage to play on, but I guess the technical demands of Wolfpit took precedence (the Wolfpit set is very much in evidence, with only a relatively constricted section of the stage available for Complete Works). Some of the performers’ physical comedy bits and pratfalls might have been funnier had they more room to move about. The pace lags when the actors are covering Shakespeare’s comedies; it was obvious that everyone onstage enjoyed mocking the tragedies, as they cheerfully admitted.
Audiences familiar with Shakespeare will probably enjoy the evening more than someone who is new to the Bard, but even “Shakespeare Beginners” will find much to laugh at, enjoy, and even learn.