The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [abridged]
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
October 7, 2006
Sometimes the atmosphere makes all the difference. The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble apparently tried to mount The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) alongside another production last year, but something about it didn't seem to work; someone thought that maybe the production was just not in a place that fit, and decided to try again. So this year, rather than being staged alongside another show, it has its own home on the stage at a midtown comedy club—and it's an excellent fit.
What this nine-year-old favorite is about is exactly what the title claims—three actors (in this instance, Scott D. Phillips, Brian Costello, and Matt Neely) trying to perform every single thing that William Shakespeare ever wrote, in only 90 minutes. Of course, actually doing this is impossible, so the show really is a sketch-comedy flavored romp through Shakespeare's work, swinging from staging the "highlights" of Romeo and Juliet with only two actors to re-working Titus Andronicus as a cooking show. While the more you know of Shakespeare, the more jokes you'll get, the show doesn't assume anyone has more than a very basic exposure to his work, so even if Romeo and Juliet is all you've read you'll still be more than able to follow along.
Under the direction of Michael Surabian, this production is shtick heaven. The costumes are just bits of overly-stagey jackets and fake wigs that the cast pulls on over street clothes as needed; the set is just a single chair and table and a portrait of Shakespeare hung in a place of honor. But the bare-bones set, the makeshift costumes, and the rough-hewn look of this production actually suit the show—it's supposed to have a seat-of-the-pants quality, after all. I've seen another company's staging of this show in a bigger space and a more polished set—the shoestring actually works better, and even served as the springboard for some visual jokes (my favorite—their take on "the ghost of Hamlet's father").
It wouldn't be improv comedy without some audience participation; in this case, the cast is "a little too short-staffed" during their presentation of Hamlet, and an audience member is pulled onstage to play Ophelia for "just one line." But by the time the bit ends, the cast manages to bring the entire audience into the fray, getting them to help the "volunteer" to "connect with her character." I was actually picked to be Ophelia during the show I attended (one of the cast members recognized me from when we worked together two years ago—thanks, Scott), and thus had the fun of watching the other members of the audience blanch slightly when they realized that no, they hadn't quite dodged performing.
It is to the cast's credit that they got the audience to participate, because we were a tough crowd. The audience at the matinee I attended was friendly, but small, and thus a little self-conscious; so some of the laughs early on were smaller chuckles from people a little too intimidated to guffaw. The cast still threw themselves into the show full tilt, and by the time we got to their take on Hamlet, the audience had been swept up in the fun through the sheer force of their enthusiasm. I'm actually thinking of coming back on a night when there's a bit of a bigger crowd, because if this cast had that much fun playing with only twelve people, I'd love to see them with a full house.