by Betsy Labiner
I should probably begin with something of a disclaimer: I’m a massive William Shakespeare fan. Check my credentials: I’ve made multiple pilgrimages to both Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe Theatre. I own five different copies of Shakespeare’s complete works (not to mention individual versions of almost all the plays), a number of film adaptations, manga versions, a map of the locations of the plays, and a small golden bust of the man himself. I’m writing my dissertation on Shakespeare and the theatre of his time. My love affair with Shakespeare has been burning strong for over two decades now (my nerdiness manifested at a young age), and shows no signs of ever dimming.
As you can imagine, when I heard that Arizona Rose Theatre was staging The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged, by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, I had feelings. Mostly positive feelings, but still – I was both excited and trepidatious, worried about whether my love of Shakespeare was going to color my reaction to this take on his oeuvre. Attempting to even mention all his plays in roughly an hour and a half is a tall order, so I couldn’t imagine what Complete Works was going to look like or how it would manage the task that the play itself calls “a feat that we believe to be unprecedented in the history of civilization. That is, to capture, in a single theatrical experience, the magic, the genius, the towering grandeur of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.”
They do more than manage it. Under the direction of Mark Klugheit, actors Steve McKee, Stephanie Howell, and Daniel Hagberg attack the challenge with gusto, jumping from role to role with alacrity. The presentation of the abridged complete works operates within a frame narrative in which the actors set out to introduce an allegedly “intellectually flaccid” audience to Shakespeare. There is no such thing as the fourth wall or suspension of disbelief in this production; the actors address each other out of character, speak directly to the audience, and even solicit audience participation. It’s a lot of fun, and – if I may be my graduate student self for a moment – actually a wonderful encapsulation of the theatrical experience of Shakespeare’s own time. Shakespeare is held up today as a paragon of artistic intelligence and sophistication, and while his work certainly is those things, it is also unrepentantly crass, bawdy, violent, pun-filled, and subversive. His gorgeous verse tricks people into thinking he couldn’t possibly make a “your mom” joke, but he does (see act IV, scene II of Titus Andronicus). This is all to say that Complete Works is rowdy, salacious, and absolutely in keeping with the spirit of Shakespeare.
The play begins and ends with two of Shakespeare’s most famous works – Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, respectively – and crams the other 35 plays, plus a nod to the sonnets, in between. If there was any element that disappointed me, it was simply that we didn’t get more. Some of the plays are essentially just name-dropped before we skip on to the next joke. The brevity is the point, of course, but I would have been happy to stretch the irreverent fun for as long as possible. One of my favorite moments was the play’s take on Titus Andronicus, which was presented in the form of a hilariously off-kilter cooking show. It was unapologetically dark humor, and I loved it.
The actors don’t indulge in overacting so much as revel in it, leaning on it for comedic effect in moments that might otherwise derail the lightheartedness of the play. The over-the-top death scenes and self-aware soliloquizing are all part of the fun. All three actors deserve praise for their ability to slip in and out of Shakespearean verse, weaving the frame narrative as well as modern pop culture references into the various Sparknotes-esque scenes. They also did a great job responding to and working with the audience, even in clearly unscripted moments in which feisty audience members seized the opportunity to ham it up. I applaud the comedic use of lighting and music, particularly a scene in which McKee is forced to literally chase the spotlight. Hat tip to Ruben Rosthenhausler, Paul Mayfield, and Brandon Howell on those elements!
I also want to praise the casting. Complete Works is typically performed by three men, but as demonstrated by this production, there’s absolutely no reason that need be the case. Gender-blind casting affects neither the humor nor the story, and simply opens up new possibilities in interpretation.
Whether you’re a Shakespeare afficionado or a more casual consumer of his work, this play is for you. It’s a blast through and through, as long as you’re willing to not take yourself, or Shakespeare, too seriously. The play contains adult humor and profanity, so this probably isn’t something you should attend with young children.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged is playing at The Arizona Rose Theatre through March 15. The only bad news? Much of the run is already sold out! They’ve added one additional performance already, but tickets are going quickly. You can check availability online at http://www.arizonarosetheatre.com/, or call (520) 888-0509. And as McKee says, “May the Bard be with you.”