Thirty-Seven Plays in Ninety-Seven Minutes

Reduced ShakespeareI’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).  I’ve seen it live twice, and the DVD more times than I can tell you.  I was introduced to this brilliant production by my quite brilliant high school Shakespeare teacher–and it’s a lot of fun when you can then quote the production in Shakespeare class and the teacher gets the joke too!

The players of the Reduced Shakespeare Company declare that they “descend among [us] on a mission from God and the literary muse to spread the holy word of the Bard to the masses.” And they do–with high hilarity besides.  They do not spread literary, scholarly, or particularly deep or analytical Shakespeare to the masses, but an audience member with no familiarity with Shakespeare will leave with a working knowledge of the plot of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, a rougher idea of Othello, Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus, some exposure to Shakespeare’s language, and—most important I’d say—a clear and lasting impression that Shakespeare can be interesting and fun!

Complete Works presents all thirty-seven plays in ninety-seven minutes (or so their tagline says).  Three actors play every part, and they do a credible impression of making it all up as they go along.  Props fly, lines are spouted accurately or in parody, the audience is invited to participate (as Ophelia’s psyche), and all in all, Shakespeare becomes a hysterically funny, high-impact sport.  I could give you a long review about pros and cons and ups and downs…but honestly, it’s just bloody funny, and the best review may simply be to tell you some of the hilarious moments.

The Comedies wind up condensed down into one play, while the Histories are turned into a football match, tossing the crown about the stage.  More attention is given to the tragedies–because it turned out they were funnier.  Titus Andronicus appears as a cooking show.  Macbeth is performed with extreme rolling of Rs.  Romeo and Juliet features a lot of Shakespeare’s lines, though also a surprising amount of pantomimed-vomit.  After a brief confusion involving plastic boats and the correct meaning of “moor,” Othello is presented in rap (“About a punk named Iago, who made himself a menace, ’cause he didn’t like Othello, the Moor of Venice.”)

Act Two is entirely devoted to Hamlet, going almost scene-by-scene.  They cut out Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the pirates, but otherwise you get the complete plot, and there are even a few more serious moments.  There’s an amazing performance of the “What a piece of work is man” speech, and the final deaths are affecting.  Although, of course, there’s also a sock puppet play-within-the-play, a literal sock playing the ghostly king, and the aforementioned audience participation as Ophelia’s psyche.  Among other things…

Reduced Shakespeare’s Complete Works provides an evening of great fun for anyone.  Those who know Shakespeare well will pick up on a number of relatively subtle jokes and those who don’t know Shakespeare will leave knowing a good deal more than they did before, and with plenty of encouragement to seek out even more.  Either way, no one who watches the Complete Works will ever read Shakespeare in quite the same way again.  See it live or get the DVD–it’s not to be missed!

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