Annapolis Shakespeare Company has done an excellent job with their production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged, written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. Directed by Sally Boyett, it presents three actors (John Bellomo, Brian Keith MacDonald, and Johnny Weissgerber) finding highly creative, unusual, and funny ways of performing all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in under one and a half hours.
Using the outdoor courtyard of Reynolds Tavern as their stage, with costumes and often silly props, they take the audience from Romeo and Juliet all the way through Hamlet, doing the less well-known plays as well as the famous ones. The show is completely engaging and entertaining, proving that, as Johnny remarks, “Shakespeare doesn’t have to be boring.”
The play starts with Brian, wearing a nice shirt and jacket, presenting himself as “a pre-eminent Shakespearean scholar.” It soon becomes clear, as he says later, that the emphasis should be on “pre,” as he doesn’t seem to know much about Shakespeare or the plays. He introduces Johnny as a prominent Shakespearean biographer. Johnny, reading from Google, becomes disappointed when Brian tells him that Shakespeare married a different Anne Hathaway. Later, sermon-like, holding up a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, Brian tells the audience that he dreams of a world “where this book is in every hotel room”, encouraging “a literary jihad”, which brought an “amen” from most of the audience. With that, joined by John, they begin with Romeo and Juliet.
The many costume changes required by this production, since each actor plays multiple roles, shows off their talents, although sometimes this is used for comic effect. For instance, towards the end of performing Hamlet, Johnny playing both Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet’s father, ends up on stage wearing parts of all three characters, including a beard, wig, and dress, prompting Brian, playing Hamlet, to call him as “father, mother, uncle”. Johnny tends to play most of the female parts in a way that makes one of the other actors remark that he “has the strange idea that all of Shakespeare’s women characters wear really ugly wigs and vomit on the audience.”
The humor here is on the edgy side. During the Romeo and Juliet performance Johnny, playing Juliet, mishears Romeo’s “but love” as something different, which Johnny milks for the rest of the scene, randomly exclaiming “buttlove.” Attempting to kill himself with Romeo’s sword, he finds it’s a lot shorter outside its sheath than expected, to which he responds, “That’s Romeo for you!” While the audience enjoyed these jokes, including a group of 8th graders visiting from North Carolina, it may not be for everyone.
The actors incorporate the audience into this production in clever ways, creating more comedy. During one of Juliet’s monologues, Romeo ignores her, speaking with an audience member instead, until Juliet draws his attention again. When preparing to do Hamlet, Johnny is vehemently against the idea, urging the audience for support. When they do perform the play, they bring another audience member onstage to do Ophelia’s primal scream, while the rest of the audience represents other aspects of her personality, shouting out various things. The whole effect is one of controlled chaos that works brilliantly.
Even with all the comedic bits, they still use as much of Shakespeare’s lines as possible. It’s a testament to the actors’ skills that they can switch between Shakespeare’s words and modern speech so quickly and effortlessly. And there are moments when the power and beauty of Shakespeare is allowed to fully shine on its own. Johnny, usually playing for laughs, does the “to be or not to be” soliloquy completely straight, and it is stunningly beautiful.
They get through all the plays in different ways. They summarize the plot of Othello through a rap song. Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s bizarre first play, is done as a cooking show, “The Gory Gourmet” with Titus wearing a bloody apron and wielding a butcher’s knife as he demonstrates how to make a pie out of the villain who raped and mutilated his daughter. He shows the finished product “with ladyfingers” and describes it as “finger licking good!” Macbeth is done with Scottish accents, kilts, and bagpipe music. The comedies are all mashed together in a staged reading while the actors wear red clown noses and beanies. This is perhaps the strangest piece, and yet, though a fast pace and comic timing, they make it work.
Hamlet comes in the second act, after much heated discussion about performing it. They add many comic touches to the tragedy, such as a Polonius slowly shuffling onstage to recite one of his famous aphorisms, the ghost at the end of a fishing pole, and Brian suffering a nervous breakdown while attempting “to be or not to be.” They do the play not once, not twice, but four times. It is an incredibly impressive performance.
Sally Boyett directs this play brilliantly. The actors truly know their lines backwards and forwards, and they move seamlessly and naturally in a production where timing is everything. Engaging with the audience, they all work well together to create a hilarious show. While it helps to have some knowledge of the plays, it’s more important to sit back, laugh and enjoy.
Fast paced, funny, and held in a pleasant outdoor setting, Annapolis Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged makes for a wonderful evening of comedy and theater.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged plays though September 27, 2016 in the Courtyard at Reynolds Tavern – 7 Church Circle, in Annapolis. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 415-3513, or purchase them online.