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Shakespeare, but without all the chat

The Civic Theater’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare delivers 97-minute dash through the Best of the Bard

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2005-02-21


According to the play The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), if the Bard were alive today, he’d be in Hollywood working on Titus Andronicus III: Lavinia’s Revenge.

Whether or not the staement is true, it serves as an apt guide to the play’s skewered and hilarious take on Shakespeare.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), which begins its run at the Fort Wayne Civic Theater on March 4th, features three actors doing a full-tilt and very funny charge through the collected works of Shakespeare. Johnathan Brouwer, Tracy Collins and Michael Todd Harris frantically take on the Bard’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets, all under 97 minutes.

Originally the brainchild of the Reduced Shakespeare Company (whose other works include U.S. History (abridged) and The Bible (abridged)), The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) blends slapstick, improvisation, and pop culture references, and throws a little audience participation into the mix. “It’s like The Carol Burnett Show on speed, or John Belushi’s Samuri from Saturday Night Live doing Shakespeare,” says director Brad Beauchamp, who has acted in several area productions and is making his Civic Theater directing debut.

“I don’t want the title of the show to panic anyone,” he adds. “They put the ‘abridged’ in parentheses, but it should actually be larger.”

Beauchamp’s comparison with early Saturday Night Live is a good one. A staple of early SNL was a character called Father Guido Sarducci, who used to do a routine called “The Five Minute University,” which compressed all anyone remembered from college courses 15 years later into five minutes.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) takes a similar irreverent approach to Shakespeare. The play plows through Julius Caesar in four lines. One version of Hamlet lasts about three seconds. The histories — all the complicated King Richards and Henrys — are told as a football game, while Romeo and Juliet starts off with the actors declaring that “it would be nearly impossible to do the story with three actors. That’s why we’re using two.”

And the bloody Titus Andronicus, which Beauchamp describes as Shakespeare in his Quentin Tarantino phase, is done as a cooking show.

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare will probably pick up on the joke of Titus as Julia Child before they even get to the theater, but The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) has proved such an enduring audience favorite because it appeals to those who snored through Shakespeare in their literature class as well as the ones that stayed awake. “It’s almost like an improv show, but with a script,” jokes Johnathan Brouwer, one of the actors. “Whenever there’s a part that’s straight Shakespeare, it goes flying off into another direction after a few lines.”

“This is kind of an animal all by itself, which is kind of cool,” adds Michael Todd Harris, trying to describe the play’s blend of humor.

The three actors have racked up quite a few productions among them; Michael Todd Harris, originally from Fort Wayne, is a professional actor on break from his usual gig in Branson, Missouri (“Just put down that we’re all accomplished Shakespearean actors,” Brouwer tells me). But despite the lengthy acting resumes, the actors say The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) presents its own set of challenges. For a show like this, which relies on its frantic pace and rapid-fire jokes, timing is everything, and all this seeming chaos on stage is actually tightly orchestrated. The physical demands of portraying more than 75 characters can also be tough. “One actor is running off as Gertrude, and coming back in as Ophelia, and running off again and coming out as Polonius,” says Beauchamp. “That’s just one actor, and while he’s doing that, the other two actors are doing the same thing.”

Tracy Collins plays many of the female characters. “They run and they scream, and they vomit a lot,” he says. “It’s very highbrow.”

As if the actors didn’t have enough to keep them on their toes, there’s also a little audience participation involved. “There are chunks that allow us to deviate from the script a little bit, and places to get right back on,” Brouwer says.

Beauchamp won’t reveal the nature of the audience participation; it’s all a part of the play’s spontaneous, improvisational feel, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself drawn up on stage to join the actors briefly during Hamlet.

The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre presents The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)
March 4, 5, 11 & 12 at 8 pm. March 6 & 13 at 2 pm.
The Performing Arts Center, 303 E. Main Street
Tickets: Adults $22, Students age 23 and under $14, Sunday Senior Matinees, $18
Call (260) 424-5220 noon to 6 pm. for tickets Box office opens Tuesday, February 22.

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