The first thing I notice when I find my seat for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) is that black-clad stagehands are all over the stage, moving various props and other junk around. In fact, save for a giant pair of double-doors in the center of the stage, the set resembles more of a prop closet you’d find in the bowels of a theater than something you’d see on stage. At first I think it’s because I’m attending the preview night instead of opening night, but after watching a crewmember polish the heck out of a sword for five minutes, it dawns on me that no one is actually doing anything useful, everyone is just chatting and moving stuff slightly from one location to another.
It’s confusing until my companion informs me of a theater convention — apparently, plays whose subjects include theater itself often will make elements of the set transparent to the audience in an attempt to be honest to the audience. I take her at her word. She knows more about these things than I.
It’s fitting that The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) is so transparent about its aims as a play. It’s a three-man show (rarely are there women players, as much of the humor comes from the cross-dressing male actors) that tries to portray all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in less than two hours. The actors play themselves, and the fourth wall is nonexistent. It gets even more meta when the actors suffer a crisis near the intermission. But I’d better not spoil that here.
Complete Works stars 11-season CSF vet Ian Andersen alongside newcomers Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski and Evan Zes. They all play themselves, as mentioned before. The script, written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield and first performed at the 1987 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is dashingly clever and extremely ambitious. The first scene opens with the actors taking out the trash and summoning a nervous pre-eminent Shakespearean scholar to instruct the audience. (“I’m only eminent!” he exclaims.) Shakespeare is vital, the scholar says, after a brief lecture, but in this modern world who has the time? Hence, Shakespeare abridged.
The star-crossed lovers get the first treatment as a fairly straightforward and funny condensation, and after that, Titus Andronicus, in which Titus kills his daughter’s rapist and feeds the man’s remains in a pie to his mother, is presented as a cooking show. (Shakespeare wrote it as a starving artist, the actors explain, so of course it’s obsessed with food!) Realizing they are pressed for time, they then blitz through the remaining plays. Hamlet takes up the entire second act.
Othello, Shakespeare’s only play to star a person of color, is turned into a rap song. I can forgive the script for pouncing on the stodgy-white-guys-rapping joke. It was 1987. White people rapping about Shakespeare was probably fresh and hilarious. But 26 years later the joke hasn’t aged well. Maybe someone should make a dubstep remix of the song?
For the most part, though, the actors pull off the script beautifully. There are some truly funny parts, such as a creative use of “All the Single Ladies” during Romeo and Juliet, and the poignant observation that “We’ve found that Shakespeare’s tragedies are way funnier than his comedies,” since the comedies all basically recycle the same plot. There is an interactive demonstration of Ophelia’s psychological motivations during the presentation of Hamlet that is genuinely interesting, educational and surprisingly powerful.
Complete Works must be an actor’s dream, as each actor plays more a dozen roles, and the trio at the CSF admirably takes on the task. For Bard lovers and haters alike, there is much to enjoy.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) plays at the University Theatre on the CU campus through Aug. 10. Tickets start at $10. Visit www.coloradoshakes.org for tickets and more information.