Slapstick Shakespeare parodies the Bard
“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
Whether it was 20th-century actor Peter O’Toole, 18th-century thespian Edmund Kean, or a host of others who may have said it, this quip refers to the challenge of making audiences laugh.
It could also be a reference to the amount of physical energy expelled, given the many pratfalls, quick changes and assorted wild goings-on required for any comedic production.
Both the skill and the sweat are clearly at play as actors Gregory Burgess, Elliott Kashner and Matthew Wilson take on the hilariously Herculean task of performing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield.
It’s 16 comedies, 11 historical plays and 11 tragedies, not to mention the sonnets (“It’s the complete WORKS of Shakespeare, not just his plays!”), all in two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
One becomes winded just perusing the program. Performances run (and they do run) through March 29 at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.
Puns and other low humor
There are puns (“A nose by any other name would still smell”), jabs at Shakespeare (“excelling despite male pattern baldness”), audience participation, slow-motion swordplay, rainbow-striped pantaloons, primary-color tights and high-top Keds, spurts of silly string and a nod to the Bard’s “A-List” works.
Each member of the three-man ensemble plays multiple roles and, in keeping with Shakespearean tradition, the female parts as well (hence numerous well-worn wigs and in Kashner’s case, a variety of voice modulations, from Cockney lass to Valley girl).
Burgess provides what little order he can to the proceedings in his role as a “pre-eminent Shakespearean scholar” (graduate of a certificate program, making him “neither eminent nor post-eminent”), who describes the Bard’s influence “spreading through the lymphatic system of civilization.”
Act One begins with a satiric salute to Romeo and Juliet. The biggest laugh comes as Wilson’s Romeo declares, “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized.” Kashner’s Juliet interrupts, “Um, did you just call yourself Butt Love? Is that your name now?”
Things ratchet up a notch as the perspiring players are perturbed to discover this single play has taken nearly a quarter hour to perform.
On to Titus Andronicus, a bloody work where a tormented father kills his daughter’s assailants, bakes their remains into pies, and feeds them to their mother. Naturally, Titus becomes a cooking show, “The Gory Gourmet.”
Othello follows as a Gilbert & Sullivan parody: “I am the very model of a model Moorish general.” Macbeth offers Wilson a rather clever way to play three witches simultaneously. Shakespeare’s 11 history plays become a fast-paced football game, Lancaster versus York, as one king overthrows another.
The audience is also introduced to Shakespeare’s “problem plays, also known as the obscure works, or Shakespeare’s crappy plays,” as aforementioned scholar Burgess explains.
The Bard’s comedies are quickly dispatched as “all the same,” switching in gender, identity and species, and then concluding with everyone married.
On to Act Two
All the foregoing takes place just within the first hour of the show!
Following the intermission, the play’s second half is all “Halmet — uh, that is, Hamlet,” which exposes the many layers of the characters. Ophelia is torn between her desire for Hamlet, her traditional role as a courtly woman of Denmark, and her grief after her father’s death, all presented in didactically droll fashion as an exploration of the id, ego and super-ego — with some help from a few willing, but wary, audience members.
From Hamlet’s father’s ghost to “Fellatio, um, Horatio,” the stage trio take on all roles in Shakespeare’s most famed play, though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are nowhere to be found because “they’ve got their own play anyway,” Kashner jokes.
The cast’s lively performance resulted in a standing ovation followed by several encores, which included a 43-second production of Hamlet, and one version of Hamlet in reverse, both in lines read and scenes performed, all greatly abridged.
Kudos to director Ian Gallanar and the entire scenic, lighting, costume and production crew for presenting this Bardic farce, essentially a 120-minute Marx Brothers routine.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) continues through March 29 at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, two blocks north of the Inner Harbor.
Tickets range from $19 to $53. For more information, visit chesapeakeshakespeare.com or call the box office at (410) 244-8570.
Due to health and safety concerns from the coronavirus, this show has been cancelled.