With our calendars getting increasingly crowded and revisiting the plays we read (were supposed to read/wanted to read/never thought of reading) in high school probably not high on our to-do list, it might be nice to have the chance to Cliff Notes our way through the theatrical canon of Western history’s greatest dramatist.
Zounds! That chance has arrived. Off the Quill is offering Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield’s irresistibly rollicking, paroxystically inventive parody of all things Will-ful. From the start, you know that something’s deliciously, deliriously rotten in the state of Shake-speak.
Welcoming the audience, Brian H. Moors, businesslike in black, from hair to beard to jacket and slacks, begins with an introduction that starts out sly, swiftly accelerates to antic, and crescendos to a rousing, roaring promotional paean to the similarly attired Michael J. Dombrowski, who, rather than passing it on, turns around and scathingly insults a pale, hapless, hairless fellow in the front row dressed like a schlump. Oh, wait—his T-shirt says, “IN THE SHOW.”
Which turns out to be a perfect introduction to it. Long, Singer, and Winfield’s play, which since its 1987 Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut has become (according to Wikipedia) one of the world’s most popular shows, breaks the fourth wall in ways that will have you rolling your eyes and rolling in the aisles in such quick succession, you’d be forgiven for thinking you rolled something else. I’d be tempted to say the players did, but that would be a lie overwhelmingly belied by the almost tactile sharpness of their extraordinary performances.
The new recruit (the T-shirted guy, Patrick Mullen) is assigned to provide us a quick bio of the Bard. Unfazed, he goes straight to Google and comes up with a gleefully, uproariously exaggerated takeoff on what we get when we type in a term with countless potential or actual—invariably, among them, completely unrelated—connections. Mullen mugs like a demented Danny Kaye, managing to persuasively portray, in a matter of seconds, everyone—manically overwrought accents, comically caricatured characterizations and all—from Joan of Arc to Adolf Hitler.
Telling us that the premise of the show is to present all but one—the most popular, which by general show-of-hands agreement is Hamlet—of Shakespeare’s plays in condensed form, the players begin with his most beloved: Romeo and Juliet. Here, the Act 3 sword fight between Tybalt and Mercutio (skillfully executed by Moors and Mullen) gets a contemporary touch straight out of Star Wars. Dombrowski, offering an equally contemporary one (which may evoke a reaction best described by removing the “t”), poetically advises us that in the course of pursuing romance, “Romeo will attempt to get in Juliet’s pants!” And then more craziness ensues.
A fiendishly apt introduction to the next play, the Bard’s bloodiest: Titus Andronicus, whose multiple murders and mutilations are dispensed with both harrowingly and hilariously as Moors dramatically slits his throat with a scythe, streams of bright red “blood” spurting with a purposeful directness, as if from a couple of well-aimed punctured water balloons.
Next up: what may be either the most politically incorrect or the most if-Shakespeare-were-writing-it-now-insightful Othello, done in rap. Which went by so fast, its rhymes, rhythms, literary allusions and linguistic alliterations became a happy, damn-that’s-good blur.
The same could be said for the next—more precisely, the next seventeen—but here, that was the point. Positing, then presenting as a general consensus, the proposition that all of Shakespeare’s comedies essentially recycle the same plot, the trio take it upon themselves to streamline and combine them, with Moors and Mullen taking on all the roles as Dombrowski narrates. Again, you’re stunned by both their facility and their velocity, which serve as racecar-like vehicles for their scripted-plus-improvised, every-other-line near, or actual, hilarity.
Moving on to the “Scottish play,” the three, now dressed in vibrant, red-and-black tartan-like plaid (for the slim, six-foot-plus Mullen’s Lady Macbeth), fling another round of zany-yet-brainy zingers at each other and off to the audience. Seeing this as prime time for a commercial break, Dombroski proudly promotes his own unpublished Shakespeare monograph, in which he professes his passion for, er, the Bard: “I Love My Willy.”
Blowing off Troilus and Cressida (a not uncommon reaction of readers, they note) brings Mullen to remember how boring Shakespeare was to him as a kid. Why, he demands, couldn’t it have the excitement of football? No sooner said than done—and as rapidly undone, with assorted objects tossed and thrown, kicked and flung to the accompaniment of macho chants and (need it be said, impertinently) pertinent citations.
So—we’ve done them all, right? Well, except for Coriolanus, which they agree can be skipped because of its arguably X-rated title. There are kids in the audience, right? Right. But wait: what about . . . Hamlet? To do, or not to do? Sensing there might be an audience insurrection if they skip it, which Mullen has urged them to do, these poor players—glistening with sweat but knowing, as it’s only been an hour, and they’ve promised us two, that their work is but half done—agree to proceed.
Good choice. You will not want to miss Act II.
Tho it looks like two of the actors may. To pass the time till they show up, Moors cheerfully announces that he will recite the Sonnets: all 154 of them. Acknowledging that his knowledge of them begins and ends with the opening line of the most famous, but assuring us he has a fix for this, he is (and we are, after seeing it; think: 2-pt. type) nonetheless immensely relieved when his peeps appear.
Because we’re seeing a condensed version of the play, not only lines but characters get cut. (There are two waggish reasons for Horatio’s omission, one of them R-rated and the other, X. With a few small children in the audience, which made me admire their parents for wanting to introduce them to Shakespeare in the most enjoyable way possible, it was probably good that it moved too quickly for them to ask dialogue-specific questions later.) And because they’re on a limited budget, even key characters get a wave-on—in one case literally, with a ghostly white-gloved hand, barely visible from offstage.
That it works as well as it does—not just this subtly delightful bit, but the madcap Monty-Python-on-speed-ness of the entire production—is testament not only to the prodigious skills of the actors, in close concert with Stage Manager Elise Berg, but to the directorial chops and insight and dramatic/comedic sensibilities of Director Leanne Dinverno. The costumes by Katie Wanschura are a ragtag, thrift-store-and-costume-shop-heaven match for them, while Sound Designer Donald Cook’s musical interludes are at once ludicrous and pitch-perfectly felicitous, and Meredith Coyle’s lighting moves effectively from scene to scene, capturing the changes in mood without competing with their crazed celerity.
With just two shows remaining, a sane celerity—to purchase tickets—is highly recommended. As is this show.
Running Time: Two hours plus one 15-minute intermission.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged! Revised!) plays through August 8, 2015 at Off the Quill performing at The Greenbelt Arts Center -123 Centerway, in Greenbelt, MD. For tickets, call (301) 441-8770, or purchase them online.
(Note: If you haven’t been there before, it may be helpful to know that the theater is on the lower level of the center, accessible by a stairway but somewhat difficult to spot from the upper level. Parking is available on both levels.)