The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)—the title is itself sometimes abridged as The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)—must be one of the funniest scripts written in the past few decades. (Can it really be nearly 25 years since the play’s authors—Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, the founding members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company—first performed it?) Yet as noted by Scott Alan Small, director of the current production by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, procuring a funny script is one thing; “finding actors to do high-level comedy, requiring impeccable timing, [is] another beast.” Fortunately, Small has found Scott Graham, John Thomas Miller, and Frank B. Moorman, and their hilarious collaboration is further evidence—if more were needed—why the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, where the CSC performs outdoors each summer and fall, is a necessary destination for area theatergoers.
The idea behind The Complete Works … is as simple as it is inspired: Three affable schmoes (well, Moorman is introduced as “one of America’s preeminent Shakespeare scholars”) lead us on a ridiculously condensed tour through the Bard’s canon. In the process, sixteen comedies are blended into one (“The Comedy of Two Well-Measured Gentlemen Lost in the Merry Wives of Venice on a Midsummer’s Twelfth Night in Winter …”); the histories are re-imagined as a football game (King Lear is hit with the dreaded “fictional character on the field” penalty); and all 154 sonnets are printed on a 3x5 card to be passed through the audience.
The tragedies are given more idiosyncratic treatment—Titus Andronicus becomes a cooking show, for example, and Othello is rapped (the notion that white guys rapping are inherently funny is one of the show’s few outdated jokes)—but there are common themes as well. (“You have this bizarre notion that all of Shakespeare’s heroines wear really ugly wigs and vomit on people before they die,” Graham chastises Miller, who defends his bad drag act as an “interpretation.”) The entire second act is devoted to Hamlet, and features a particularly zany bit of audience participation that shouldn’t work but somehow does. When the play ends and everyone is dead, the actors rise for an encore. “Ladies and gentlemen,” they proclaim: “We shall do it FASTER.” And then they do it backward.
Small keeps the pace manic, as it must be, and the actors indeed display impeccable timing. Graham is more or less the straight man, and Moorman is the pedant, but the brightest star is Miller, who gets the plummest role—the amateur thespian whose enthusiasm is matched only by his ignorance—and knows exactly how to serve it. Together they ace the show’s essential challenge, which is to make you believe they are in fact making up the whole thing as they go, skating blindly over the thin ice masking their lack of expertise … and talent.
In keeping with the mandate of the authors, Small and his cast have updated many of the references (both local and popular) and revised other sections to facilitate improvisation with the audience. Only one change doesn’t quite work. In the original script, which assumes that all three actors are the same age, the person who plays Moorman’s roles gets to play Hamlet; perhaps because Moorman is older than his scene partners, Small assigns the role to Miller. Though Miller is perfectly funny as a tragic hero (and Moorman makes a charmingly stout Ophelia), the reversal causes some confusion in Act 2, since Miller closes Act 1 by emphatically refusing to perform at all. (“Hamlet is a really serious, hardcore play, and I’m just not up for it right now.”) At the risk of over-thinking what is unabashedly nonsensical, in this instance I question what Small gained by deviating from the text.