The spirit of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” can be summed up in one line from the show itself: “We don’t have to do it justice, we just have to do it.” This statement can be applied pretty broadly to the entire work. But no one who saw the Second Stage production of this play over the past weekend would take that as a criticism.
The conceit here is that three regular guys are trying (the key word here is trying) to do Shakespeare’s entire canon in an hour and a half, without knowing anything about Shakespeare. The word was that “The Complete Works” is one of the most enjoyable theatergoing experiences around, and my evening in the ’92 did not disappoint. Written and first performed by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, the three-person show was here taken over by Dakota Gardner ’11, Arielle Levine ’11, and Sean David Richards ’10. Capably updated for both the University and the twenty-first century, the show was a rollercoaster of good fun, pseudo-academic nonsense, and (most importantly) vomit. To give you a sense of the lunacy, “Titus Andronicus” is turned into a gore-fest cooking show, “Othello” is a free-style rap, the histories become a football game, and a compilation of all the comedies (replete with flashcards) highlights the Bard’s repetition of comic devices.
Where to begin? I was initially apprehensive when I saw Ms. Levine’s name in the program, only because traditionally the show is done with three men, and a central gag is that one of the men plays all the female roles. All worries disappeared, however, once she hit the boards—after all, this is Wesleyan, and messing with gender roles is practically in the University’s mission statement (it also proved to be extremely entertaining). Within the first skit (“Romeo and Juliet”) Levine played Romeo, Friar Lawrence, and the Nurse. But the highlight of her performance was likely her solo improv work immediately before the intermission, after Gardner had chased Richards, screaming, from the theater.
With Levine playing many of the traditional men’s roles, Mr. Richards was left with the majority of the romantic leads; in fact, he covered all of them. From Juliet in the first play to Ophelia and Gertrude at the end, Richards took the most traditional funnyman role in the play, cross-dressing more often than not and providing all of the delicious vomit the script demands (Gardner remarked that Richards “seem[ed] to have this really bizarre notion that all Shakespeare’s heroines do is wear that ugly wig and vomit all over people right before they die”). It can be easy for the set of roles Richards was performing to steal the show, as the most overtly silly performer both in and out of character, but in this production the trio did a remarkably good job of sharing the stage.
Dakota Gardner made up the third member of the troupe, and I was relieved to see him move from what initially seemed like a low-energy performance to one of the same mania that characterized the other roles. In Gardner’s defense, it’s hard to make his set of roles, originally played by Jess Winfield, kick off as funnily as the other two, since the first thing he does is sit out of the action and provide narration. But he followed this up with an excellent (which is to say, gruesome) performance as Titus Andronicus, and quickly established himself as the group’s overzealous “tragedian.” (He also played Hamlet and Macbeth).
One of the things about these three that made this performance so excellent was their faithfulness to the original performance. Not in terms of the lines—after all, one can hardly expect a line like “sodomized by Sarah Palin” in the original edition. What’s far more important in this play is the spirit of the piece: developed by three actors through improvisation, it should never stray too far from those spontaneous roots. It’s a challenging, sometimes dangerous play (Richards nearly took out a light with Macbeth’s severed head the night I attended) and a love of the performance itself is needed to see actors through. This love of performance and energy got the trio through some interesting spots, particularly when no fewer than seven latecomers arrived an hour after the curtain. Another important aspect was the actors’ interactivity with the audience, which made the show feel a lot more personal and immediate: the group “workshop” of one of Ophelia’s moments in act two, with Ophelia played by an audience “volunteer,” was a lot of fun.
It is tempting to go on at great and verbose length about the many hysterical and poignant (well, all right, not as many poignant) moments in this production, but I desist. Suffice it to say that had I of late lost all my mirth, I’m certain these three could make me recover it. And I’m equally certain that vomit would be involved.