In modern times it’s become almost commonplace
to reinterpret Shakespeare - switching gender, setting, order
of scenes and more. But few renditions of Shakespeare come close
to the chaos of Jess Winfield, Adam Long and Daniel Singer’s
"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."
The comedy (farce/parody/series of skits) first appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe festival 16 years ago and since then has become a cult classic. With the nine-year London run coming to an end, The Gallery Players have joyfully leaped into the breach with their own production this season, which plays through April 10.
Humor is a strange commodity. What will send one person into fits of laughter may leave another cold. So let it be with "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare."
The Gallery Players’ production has excellent direction by Neal Freeman and outstanding performances by the ensemble of three actors - Alex Domeyko, Rob Seitelman and Patrick Toon, all of whose wonderful timing is only matched by their antic energy. It is these actors’ tour de force performance and Freeman’s unerring judgment in moving them around the stage that turns the script (if one may call the loosely connected skits a script) into something more than what might be the brainchild of clever college sophomores thumbing their noses at the establishment.
Winfield, Long and Singer of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, had a great idea. What could be more entertaining than to celebrate and have fun with Shakespeare by presenting all 37 plays (and take a swipe at the sonnets to boot) in 97 minutes? Of course there was the problem of what to do with the comedies, which are already funny and farcical. But under the pretext that the comedies are "not nearly as funny as the tragedies," the writing trio wraps them up in one mega-comedy that incorporates most of Shakespeare’s comedic plots.
However, as the play progresses it becomes obvious that the real reason Winfield, Long and Singer could not deal with the comedies is that the writers use the very same techniques to create humor that Shakespeare uses - cross-dressing (Seitelman does a formidable job playing Juliet, Ophelia and a host of female parts), incompetent actors, off-color jokes and puns, visual gags and potty humor (all seen most notably in the Pyramus and Thisbe skit from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"). Only Shakespeare, with his magnificent language and astute characterizations managed to go beyond these obvious crowd-pleasers to something worthy of our attention 400 years later. Anything Winfield, Long and Singer did to the comedies would be nothing more than gilding the lily.
Of course the playwrights do add their distinctive touch. Thus "Othello" is recited as rap; the histories become a football game; "Titus Andronicus" is turned into a television cooking show; and "Hamlet" is performed abbreviated and backwards.
There are some truly inspired moments in "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" - when the play-within-a-play in Hamlet becomes a puppet show or when the audience helps interpret Hamlet as a battle between the id, the ego and the super ego.
But curiously, most of the humor in "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" references popular culture and not Shakespeare or his times. In fact, even a basic knowledge of Shakespeare is not necessary to enjoy this show. The laughs are easy and obvious: an actor pretends to vomit, the spotlight falls on the wrong spot.
Is there anything wrong with this? Not really. Only this reviewer can’t help wishing Winfield, Long and Singer, who obviously have a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare, delved a little deeper, worked a little harder and asked their audience to work a little harder. How much funnier this play might have been if the playwrights had looked for comedy in character and situation, as did Shakespeare, or at the very least produced one memorable line.
With this said, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" will probably be - once again - a hit. It is perfectly in tune with modern tastes. And if Shakespeare really was the hack literary historians say he was, perhaps with the Bard, too. Go see it and judge for yourself.
The Gallery Players production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" plays through April 10, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $12 seniors and children under 12. The Gallery Players theater is located at 199 14th St., between Fourth and Fifth avenues. For more information, call (718) 595-0547.