By RACHEIN CHILDRESS
“The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged) [revised]” is the most recent production to grace the stage at Klein Theatre. As an occasional theater-goer who has only ever taken one acting course, I will be reviewing the play from a casual perspective.
“The Complete Works” follows the mishaps of three presenters (for lack of a better term) who try to act out all of Shakespeare’s plays within a 97-minute time frame. Hindering their efforts are the 37 total plays that Shakespeare wrote, the mass number of characters in his plays that are capable of out-populating my backwater hometown and that fact that the presenters actually have little more than a passing knowledge of Shakespeare.
Indeed, the tone is set when one of the presenters introduces Shakespeare with facts that he lazily found on the internet. The facts are at first dull and delivered as if by third grader reading bullet points from a PowerPoint presentation, but they soon devolve into absurd inaccuracy, at one point claiming that Shakespeare instigated World War II. This character trait can be a little inconsistent, however, and several instances occur where a presenter who bases their knowledge of Shakespeare on bad Google searches will later go on to provide relatively deep insight or make references that would only be familiar to readers of his work.
The three presenters of “The Complete Works” are not treated as characters- at least, not in the “meta” of the play. Rather, they’re just supposed to be three people who are haphazardly acting out their interpretations of Shakespeare for the audience.
A lot of the humor derives from the fact that the Shakespearian characters are overacted and overly dramatic caricatures; this works because it’s really just supposed to be the presenters acting as Shakespeare’s characters, and it’s their own silly interpretations that we’re seeing.
During the parts of the play where the presenters aren’t acting out Shakespeare’s characters, it works better when they’re written more realistically. They’re at their best when it feels like you’re actually watching three stooges who somehow managed to put on a production and are just flubbing their way through it.
However, the play struggles when the presenters are written like overacted caricatures themselves. Having the presenters shout “YAY, TRAGEDY!” in unison and dance to celebrate the death of a character for no reason rips you from that immersion and brings the humor to a nosedive, as you’re painfully reminded of the early 2000s when you used to actually enjoy Fred Figglehorn.
The weakest part of the production was the Othello section. It’s the part where they go for their edgiest jokes, and while it’s a good thing that they never overstep their boundaries, most of it is played safe and punches are pulled too early to land successfully. Some of it works, though, such as a jab made at the current Canadian Prime Minister’s expense.
Eventually, the presenters decide to rap the summary of Othello, and it’s here where the play becomes its most uncomfortable. The gag works in a few bits, when it’s treated like the presenters are messily coordinating a rap on the fly. However, it quickly devolves into what seems to be a genuine attempt to rap about Othello, which carries all the embarrassment of a Bill Nye science rap with none of the goofy charm.
There is a lot to enjoy about “The Complete Works,” though. When the humor does land, it lands hard, and a few scenes had me laughing unexpectedly.
As I had mentioned previously, the presenters work better outside of Shakespeare when they act more naturally; when they do, they steal the show. The banter and chemistry is great between all three of them, and the production shines when they have a chance to play off each other like Abbott and Costello or- indeed- the Three Stooges.
Prop comedy was something I thought the world had collectively gotten over, but it plays quite a prominent role in this production. With sparse stage design (which works for the play), the visual aspect had to be conveyed mostly through props, and it’s done so to great effect.
They were always welcome and as silly as they needed to be, and not overly-depended on to deliver the humor. I also appreciated the more subtle uses, such as a crown worn upside-down by a dim-witted presenter. Huge props to whoever was responsible for props.
The use of improvisation and audience participation was bold for this production, especially for an environment that is normally controlled as meticulously as possible.
Patrons get called up to the stage, actors go to the seats and make banter with the audience- all of that is harder than it looks, because the actors have to think on their feet, and they manage to pull it off effortlessly. A thousand things could have gone wrong and each audience interaction could have elicited a million unexpected responses, but the actors handle it with so much ease and grace that you’d think it was all written directly in the script and directed vigorously beforehand.
The actors themselves were all brilliant. Jacob Dodges does an amazing job of having a commanding presence without overpowering his fellow actors. Aaron Hoffman is fantastic at playing an outrageous diva. Erin Foster was great all around and she fits perfectly in her role as the closest thing to the “straight-man” (though certainly not above being ridiculous herself) of the trio.
If you like Shakespeare, chances are you’ll enjoy this production. It certainly knows Shakespeare, and there are several references for you to get. If you don’t like Shakespeare, then this might not be for you, despite what advertising claims. Sure, an English major who detests Shakespeare but was forced to intimately learn his works will find entertainment in the jabs and deconstructed silliness; your average Joe who begrudgingly made their way through “King Lear” using Spark Notes probably won’t hold that same level of appreciation. It’s a solid play, however, and anyone can appreciate the spectacle that comes with its ambition, even if it isn’t quite for them.