The sounds of lutes. A rainbow of lights. A copy of The Yale Shakespeare positioned conspicuously on a leather chair. A skull sitting on a pedestal. A ghost hanging from the rafters. These are the sights and sounds which greeted theatre goers as they entered Fells Point Corner Theatre this past weekend. Friday marked the opening of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged!) at FPCT. Written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, and directed by Howard Berkowitz, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged!) is what happens when too much familiarity breeds the most loving contempt.
Three actors embark on the daunting challenge of performing all the works of Shakespeare in one night. “Abridged” is the key here, as it’s the only way such an ambitious task could be accomplished. Humor and mayhem ensue as the fourth wall is obliterated. Throughout the play, we’re given facts about the Bard himself, trivia about his work, a plethora of pop-culture references, and critical analysis that is both scathing and scathingly hilarious. Props, costumes, and accents change at lightning-quick pace, and the laughs are constant as the actors attempt to pull off what should be an impossible feat.
The play does indeed tackle all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, which are helpfully listed in the back of the program. The more famous works are given plenty of attention, with everyone’s favorite tale of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, getting a whopping 12 minutes and Hamlet taking up the entire second act. But while all of the show is masterfully done, the true gems can be found in the treatments of the lesser-known plays. Titus Andronicus is reenacted as a cooking show. The plot of Othello is presented as a rap number. And Shakespeare’s many, many plays about royalty are condensed into a football game, with passes and interceptions representing the succession of kings.
Bart Debicki opens the show with what at first seems to be a standard preshow talk. But it is quickly revealed to be part of the play itself as he introduces Anne Shoemaker, a preeminent Shakespeare scholar whom, we discover, got her certificate off the internet. After an impassioned speech about Shakespeare’s virile literary legacy and the degradation of society, she turns on the audience with humorous consequences. In the process, the final member of the cast is revealed; Holly Gibbs, who has been hiding out in the audience. She’s called onstage to give a brief biography of the great playwright, but the history lesson goes awry as Holly has pulled her notes from a questionable Wikipedia entry.
Within a few minutes the cast is introduced and the tone is set for the night. Bart, the straight man who’s trying earnestly but unsuccessfully to rein in the madness; Anne, the pompous internet scholar who’s in over her head; and Holly, the free spirit whose enthusiasm is only matched by how little she actually knows about Shakespeare. All three actors give incredible, meticulous, high energy performances. I say meticulous because the potential for disaster is high. Balancing costume changes, innumerable props, and several pounds of literature leaves a lot of room for error. But that potential is played successfully for laughs. The actors know that there’s method in the madness and they keep a firm grip on it amid the chaos. If any real mistakes were made, they were lost in the shuffle. Audience participation is compulsory. No one is safe.
The unseen fourth member of the cast is Lighting Designer Bob Dover. Though invisible and effectively mute, Bob’s presence is keenly felt as the players on stage interact with him and his lights frequently. Tony Colavito does an impressive job as set and artistic designer, creating a set that seems sparse at a glance, but is filled with subtle homage’s to Shakespeare, with props lying in wait. Helenmary Ball deserves a round of applause for the costumes, which effectively balance period appropriateness with tongue-in-cheek sassiness, perhaps best embodied by the combination of tights and Converse sneakers. It takes skill to find accessories that can be used effectively to denote a change in character when a full costume change is unfeasible, and Ms. Ball has risen to the challenge. Jamie Jager coordinated the stage combat, of which there’s plenty, and rounding out the rest of the crew are Jesse Doggett, stage manager; Ben Kinder, assistant stage manager; and Andrew Porter; producer. Overall, the production comes across as seamless. The players are talented and are supported by a crew that obviously knows its stuff.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged!) has something for everyone. Whether you’re a Shakespeare aficionado or a novice, a lover of the Bard or one who begrudgingly suffered through him in English class, the play’s the thing and all’s well that ends well.
Be sure to check out the posters and photographs in the lobby, courtesy of Lyndsay Lewman and Kitty Kouwenhoven, respectively.
Running Time: Approximately One hour and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged!) plays through April 12, 2015 at Fells Point Corner Theatre – 251 South Ann Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.