Is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) a play? Well, not exactly. It’s more like a literary theme park ride with props, sketch comedy, audience participation, and improvisation — an explosion of theatricality that condenses and satirizes the stories and interpretations of all of Shakespeare’s plays (and even the sonnets). The aim is not to engage you in a tragedy, comedy, or history but to absurdly condense the elements of every Shakespearean work into a joke or stunt. It’s a spectacle that you share with the performers, three frenetically active actors; the chemistry among them and the audience is the key to its success.
This conceptual framework was developed by three founding members of the touring Reduced Shakespeare Company in the 1980s — Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield — and the production now playing at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater has updated material by Singer and Winfield, such as a bogus plug for T-Mobile and local inserts, such as the imminent intrusion of Jimmy Tingle. The fourth wall is virtually nonexistent, with performers talking directly to the audience and running around the aisles, stage crew members participating in the dialogue, and everyone using their own names. It’s meta and ironic to the nth power: the words of Shakespeare may be hallowed and fixed, but everything in The Complete Works (Abridged) is fluid, topical, and self-referential.
As an evening of entertainment (one hour and 40 minutes, with an intermission, to be precise), it evolved out of a send-up of Hamlet that Long, Singer, and Winfield performed at a Renaissance fair in Marin County, California in the early ’80s. That was eventually fleshed out into The Complete Works (Abridged), with all the comedies, histories, and tragedies except for Hamlet covered in the first act, and the original Hamlet parody taking up the second, along with the sonnets, which are reduced to a three-by-five card in teeny tiny type and passed around.
The degree of condensation varies from play to play. The comedies and histories are dispatched together as a group, but some of the better-known tragedies are given individual sketches. Titus Andronicus is turned into a gruesome TV cooking show; Romeo and Juliet is reduced to a few romantic and swashbuckling faceoffs, with a winking reference to the doomed pair’s underwater meet-cute in Baz Luhrmann’s movie version. In the relatively protracted Hamlet sketch, the emphasis is on Ophelia’s madness, with the audience divided into id, ego, and superego in a verbal fugue that satirizes Freudian literary analysis.
If this sounds heady, The Complete Works (Abridged) is most decidedly not. Anything intellectual and lofty is thrown willy-nilly into the circus atmosphere. There are a ton of Shakespeare quotes and puns but none that someone who isn’t familiar with the poetry and plays of the Bard couldn’t enjoy. And though there’s a fair measure of bawdiness, light profanity, and fake butchery in the mix, it’s not especially harmful to children, though the older they are the better. (People of all ages who are sensitive to strobe light effects: beware.)
The three performers at WHAT are Stephen Smith Stout, who introduces and hosts the evening; Lacy Allen, who was replaced at my performance by scene-stealing understudy Paige O’Connor (like Allen, a WHAT veteran); and Madeleine Bundy. Stout, who has real Shakespeare cred, was a great emcee, modulating between an air of impish ennui and agitated physicality. O’Connor, from the moment she appeared, displayed unbounded enthusiasm and squeezed out laughs from the silliest stunts. Bundy excels at faux-serious angst and fast-talking zingers.
The show is all props, many of them coming out of a big box, as well as mismatched pop-culture references, which combine to thoroughly overshadow the functional scenic design by Christopher Ostrom, WHAT’s producing artistic director; costumes by Brooke Stanton; lighting by John Salutz; and sound by Grace Oberhofer. I pity the stage managers, Katie Scarlett Graves and Rebecca Berger; what a mess! The controlled chaos is expertly handled by director R.J. Tolan, who has done some brilliant work at WHAT in the recent past, such as Five Times in One Night, Lenin’s Embalmers, and Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus.
Ultimately, however, the theatrical fireworks require a catalyst, and that would be you, the audience, should you choose to participate in this midsummer night’s extravaganza. You won’t get as drunk as you might at a Renaissance fair, but you’ll have plenty of fun anyway, and this show has the added benefit of appearing to be educational.
School of Bard Knocks
The event: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield
The time: Through July 29, Tuesday through Sunday at 8 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, 2357 Route 6
The cost: $42.50; seniors, $38.50; students and partial view balcony, $17.50; at what.org or 508-349-9428