A speedy taste of all things Shakespeare
Scene I. Verona, Italy.
Two servants, from the houses of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, run into each other on a street. He wears a Yankees’ cap and baseball socks up to the knee. She wears Tom Brady’s official NFL shirt with the shiny number 12 on the back and is crowned with a dark cap—the Red Sox bright red letter B on the front. They gaze at each other from a distance, then get closer, knowing that they are, just as their masters, sworn enemies. They blast into each other, drawing their weaponry: New York and Boston accents that make their angry screams almost unintelligible.
Then, enter Romeo, wearing the most ridiculous wig ever.
We’re talking just the first five minutes of the hilariously absurd—and brilliant—parody of Shakespeare’s signature tragedy Romeo and Juliet, which opens The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), a production of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project running through Jan 12 at the Charlestown Working Theater.
Written by Jess Winfield, Adam Long, Daniel Singer, the show is a well-crafted, hysterical mashup of all of William Shakespeare’s works, from comedies to tragedies to the so-called obscure plays—meaning the not so good ones. All performed in just around 90 minutes, by just three actors who rely on improvisation and audience participation to move the narrative along.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) first premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1987, with Windfield, Long, and Singer acting out the characters themselves. The play then moved to the Criterion Theater in London, where it ran successfully for nine years and became famous for holding the (self-proclaimed) record for the shortest production of Hamlet at 43 seconds.
Under the direction of Christopher V. Edwards, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) takes the complex variety of themes and narratives from arguably the greatest playwright, poet, and writer in the English language, synthesizes them, and creates a new digestible, simple, and modern take that everyone can love and laugh about.
After death finally puts an end to the rift between the Montague and Capulet families in just under 15 minutes, the play then moves on to a redo of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent work—and naturally hugely popular back in its day. Which says a lot about humanity if you ask me. But here, Titus Andronicus’ character literally follows through with his famous line that he’s going to “play the cook” and becomes an actual chef, exploring his cooking creativity with his enemies’ body parts.
The classic revenge tale ends up being a modern-day, reality TV-inspired cooking show, with lots of chopped-off hands, faces baked into pies—yes, literally—and flying streams of blood… so basically, just like Shakespeare’s original piece of work, really.
Rachell Belleman, Marc Pierre, and Ivy Ryan are the actors who give life to Shakespeare’s whole repertoire of characters, including a mad-as-a-cow and somewhat depressed Prince Hamlet; an ambitious and deceiving Lady Macbeth, whose constant scheming is all the more fun by virtue of her Scottish accent; and a very confused, feminist Ofelia who can’t seem to decide whether to climb the ladder to corporate success or have babies.
Simplicity is hands down one of the star qualities of this production. Along those lines is the play’s smart costume design by Ysabelle Regis. It doesn’t take more than a Roman grass crown to bring Emperor Julius Caesar back to life, or a white blanket with holes for eyes and a sign that reads “Boo” to get Hamlet spooked by the ghost of his murdered father the king of Denmark—and of course, don’t forget about Romeo’s wig, which made me laugh every time I looked at him.
And if that’s not enough, you get to enjoy the tons of amusing props that fly, roll, and get thrown around the stage (the prop master is Steve Vieira), including inflatable dolls, flaccid knives—the joke is theirs, not mine—and even puppets that are clearly… How do I put this?
The fact that it is based on theater plays dating back to Elizabethean England doesn’t strip the show of a profoundly contemporary character, reflected throughout the play with lines that address the #MeToo Movement and racism in America.
After taking us through 16 of Shakespeare’s comedies—or as Ryan calls them, “Shakespeare’s comedic diarrhea”—in just five minutes, and then brilliantly summarizing the theatrical saga of the kings into a single football match—Kings Lear, John, Richard III, Henry IV and Henry V pass on the crown until it all ends in touchdown—The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) brings it home with its 43-second version of Hamlet and a challenge to make it even shorter.
To all Shakespeare’s fans out there: You’ve got to see this show. And if you belong to the select group of people whose sole knowledge of Shakespeare comes from watching Leonardo Dicaprio’s sexy, teenage-looking version act out as Romeo in that movie from a million years ago, well, this show is for you, too. This is Shakespeare anew: fresher, funnier, a jolly mashup of past and present, comedy and tragedy that makes up a truly enjoyable piece of art.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) runs through Jan 12, 2020, at the Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill St., Charlestown, MA. Tickets can be purchased at actorsshakespeareproject.org