Wednesday, March 18, 2009

At STC: having fun with Shakespeare (abridged)

l to r: Miniaci, Wilton and Campbell. Photo by Hector Navejas

Leave it to the British. They adore live theater the way the Italians love grand opera. So what do they do? They invent “coarse acting” and raise it to an art form. The concept is enshrined in a book: “The Art of Coarse Acting,” by Michael Green.

So what is coarse acting? It’s a parody of bad acting performed by very good actors. With grace and panache they do everything wrong.

And it’s hard to find a better example than “The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)," aka “The Complete Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged).” Written by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, it was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987. Not only is the show incredibly funny, but by temporarily kicking Shakespeare off his pedestal it allows us to enjoy him all the more.

The show’s premise calls for three actors to perform all 37 plays of Shakespeare in 97 minutes. And the American cast of Michael RJ Campbell, Miles Miniaci and Aaron Wilton are about as good as it gets. With elaborate costumes by Jessica Minihan they can switch from male to female and role to role in seconds, thanks in great measure to Peggy Shannon’s crisp direction.

The action begins with a pseudo-scholarly introduction filled with misinformation, followed by Romeo and Juliet flashing by. There seems to be no order to the plays, although to meet the cast’s goal the story compresses all plot clichés of comedies into one über comedy. The histories are absorbed into one American football game with the British crown as the football. As for tragedies “Julius Caesar” is reduced to his death, followed by a quickie “Antony and Cleopatra” and a “Macbeth” where all is explained in heavy Scottish accents.

But time is running out and the cast suddenly realizes they have suffered a major oversight—the omission of “Hamlet,” which they declare to be Shakespeare’s greatest work. (Most serious scholars and critics would probably reserve that honor for “King Lear,” which flashes by among the tragedies we see spoofed.) Utter chaos forces the cast to declare an intermission—more like a truce—and promise to devote all of Act II to “Hamlet.”

The second act brings a change of focus: the systematic butchery of a venerated masterpiece step-by-step through the story. Ironically it leaves out the one appearance of a clown, as a gravedigger. But Campbell, as Hamlet, does get a skull to play with. We also get some heavy audience participation, including a big moment when the fair Ophelia (represented by a nervous audience volunteer) is addressed by the rest of the audience. Divided into three groups, each a different aspect of her superego, the customers bellow out messages to her.

The entire performance is played on a single set designed by Myke Kunkel. It suggests a traveling theater company, with a stylized wagon upstage, surrounded on both sides by colored drapes that allow the cast to dart in and out for quick changes of character. As a closing gift to the audience the cast gives a demonstration of versatile dying, with the climax a recitation of speeches delivered backwards.

“The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged” runs through April 5 in the Wells Fargo Complex, 1419 H Street. Performances are Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Thursday at 12:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15-$38. Call the box office at (916) 443-6722 or call (888) 4-STC-TIX. For more information click the title of this post.

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