The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

Local Arts Reviews

'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)':

Gross, Grosser, Grossest

Beverly Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theatre, through Oct. 5

Running Time, 1 hr., 45 min.

Shakespeare was a hack. Okay, this may be disputable. But once you've seen the Bard's entire output of 16 comedies distilled into a single three-minute play of mistaken identities, cross-dressing, thwarted lovers, and complicatedly-cobbled-together happily-ever-afters -- all briskly sung to the musical themes of TV's Gilligan's Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Brady Bunch -- you might be forgiven if you sense that the immortal Swam of Avon was, indeed, hacking out an Elizabethan version of the sitcom long before telly -- and more to the point, getting away with it.

More than getting away with it in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) are three highly amusing, personable comic actors -- Paul Norton, Corey Gagne, and Robert Faires (you might recognize his name from the Chronicle masthead) -- who skewer, pun, and (gross!) cook their way through all 37 of Shakespeare's plays in just 105 minutes, courtesy of a script by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield (with additions and improvisations by this cast). Directors Guy Roberts and Richard Fonté wisely give their trio a long leash, and the rapport among Messrs. Norton, Faires, and Gagne is joyful.

There are different ways the troupe tackles different plays. For the histories of the Henrys, the Johns, the Richards, and their kin, the form is a sporty gridiron outing complete with shoulder pads, a ball that you might mistake for a crown, and all the jocular jock-antics that you'd find in the smelliest locker room in the NFL. Other plays come in for specialized, individual treatment: Titus Andronicus, reduced to a tasty dish in a televised culinary vein; Othello related in rap; or Romeo and Juliet, one of a host of lampooned love stories that require Mr. Gagne, done up in a wig, to portray the lady love-interest. See him swoon (gross!), see him kiss another man (grosser!), see him barf into the cooler of the family on the blanket next to yours (grossest!).

Nothing is sacred, and, gleefully, nothing is spared: Besides all the sparkly "comedy gold" of even the most (especially the most?) portentous Shakespearean speech, the comedians find ample opportunity to let their wit shine on Austin, the theatre in general, the audience (there's a great audience participation bit), and themselves. Of course, the pièce de résistance in the Shakespearean canon is Hamlet, and the lads do wonders in tearing it apart not once, not twice, but more than twice. Tour de force or just bad taste? Who cares! Interestingly, in the middle of all the comic pandemonium -- as an aside, really -- out pops the speech, "What a piece of work is a man," spoken without any emphasis, and, suddenly, the hillside goes silent. The power of Shakespeare's verse, plainly spoken, allowed to float across the audience in all simplicity, touches us deeply, reminds us of our humanity, and of the theatre's unique ability to focus the minds and hearts of a scattered populace on a single, beautiful thought. And then it's back to the goofiness of still more spoofing. Terrific.

This is the Austin Shakespeare Festival's 20th anniversary season, and with this manic comic fare, ASF starts its year with a bang, a few whacks, a lot of laughs, and not a little vomit. OK, the vomit is fake, but the fun is real. And, as ever, the hillside show is free, so sit right back and you'll hear a tale ...

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The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), Adam Long, Daniel Singer, Jess Winfield, William Shakespeare, Austin Shakespeare Festival, Paul Norton, Corey Gagne, Robert Faires, Guy Roberts, Richard Fonté

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