REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
In Evan Smith’s program bio for The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised], it reads, “Evan Patrick Smith has never performed any Shakespeare, and he’s still not sure whether or not this show counts.” This perfectly sums up this outrageous mix of satire, slapstick, and comic mayhem, which plays through March 29 at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard.
You don’t have to be more than casually familiar with Shakespeare to have a good time with this show. Its premise is to present all of Shakespeare’s plays within a two-hour time frame. Playwrights Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield first premiered the show in 1993 and it has been a popular property for regional and community theater ever since. At times, it plays like a Your Show of Shows or Monty Python skit that has gone off the rails, but is really extremely carefully crafted, with all the gags and pratfalls carefully laid out.
The show includes a cast of three of the most gifted comedians on the community theater scene: a veritable Dream Team of talent. In last Sunday’s matinee performance, Will Shupe, who is the play’s director, filled in for Eric J. Stein, joining Smith and Austin Robert Miller in the cast. Shupe is a master of quick-change farce; the more frenetic, the better he likes it, and this show is organized chaos at its best. All three actors are masters of their craft, adept at a variety of dialects and voices and skilled in physical comedy. Seeing Miller and Smith on the same stage is like getting a double-dose of a powerful stimulant. Smith is a brilliant comedian. He can play a wryly amused Bill Murray type or adopt the improvised mania of Robin Williams at the drop of a hat (which happens often). Miller has proven himself time and time again with his ability to play serious dramatic roles and then switch to outrageous comedy.
In condensing Shakespeare into the two-hour time frame, the trio performs all of Shakespeare’s historical plays as if they were a football game (“The quarterback hands off to the hunchback…”); the sixteen comedies, which “essentially have the same plot,” are combined as well (“into one solid lump of hilarity.”) The gags whiz by so fast that one really needs several viewings to catch all of the puns, distortions, and pop culture references. Along the way, Smith does canny impressions of Charles Laughton and Patrick Warburton in various sketches and Miller does Katharine Hepburn (in drag, of course), complete with her familiar tremor. When Miller mentions the play Macbeth on stage, challenging a known theater superstition, it sends the other two actors into paroxysms of panicked hysteria, resulting in Miller and Shupe donning kilts and engaging in swordplay with a pair of golf clubs, screaming at each other in Scottish brogues.
Keen ears will actually catch actual passages from the Bard’s 37 plays, but most of what you see is hilariously corrupted (like when Miller intones from Romeo & Juliet, “A nose by any other name would still smell”) so that the original is often barely recognizable.By the end of Act I, they have rendered asunder thirty-six of the thirty-seven plays, leaving Act II to take apart Hamlet (or Helmet, as it is mispronounced at that juncture). The audience is included in the manic proceedings, as members are plucked out to participate in some of the skits while the rest of the audience gets to yell out stage directions, such as “Get thee to a nunnery!” In the end, with Hamlet lying in tatters and Shakespeare spinning in his grave, the trio do the whole thing again – in 42 seconds – and then, for good measure, do the whole thing again backwards.
The performances by Shupe, Miller, and Smith are so good that it is difficult to believe that nearly every seemingly improvised aside, movement, and pratfall has been meticulously rehearsed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] is uproarious entertainment and not to be missed.
The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] plays through March 29 at the Elite Theatre Company. For dates, showtimes, and directions, consult the VC On Stage Calendar.