Shakespeare for dummies

The Bard (abridged) at CTC
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  August 4, 2009

No, it's not sponsored by CliffsNotes. But The Complete Works William Shakespeare (Abridged), as ably demonstrated by the Contemporary Theater Company (through August 14), shows that the bane of phys-ed majors can be more fun than a barrel of bodkins.

It was written by the Reduced Shakespeare Company for the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe theater festival and caught on so well that it has become a staple of theater companies dedicated to the proposition that audiences just want to have fun.

The announced intention of this play is to perform all 37 Shakespeare works in two acts. Well, perhaps perform is too strong a word. The renditions range from abbreviated versions to bare mentions. All of the poor man's comedies are condensed into a single play titled The Comedy of Two Well-Measured Gentleman Lost In the Merry Wives of Venice On a Midsummer's Twelfth Night in Winter. In fact, the actors take the playwright to task for bothering to write 16 comedies — which they point out are all variations on the same four plagiarized plot devices — when he could have done just one.

Directed by Christopher J. Simpson, the three performers go by their own names, although even that sounds suspicious. They are Max Rosmarin, Stephen Strenio, and Matthew Royality-Lindman. The latter two names sound like a comic relief character ("Oy, Strenio, is that a pig in your poke?") and the scion of an aristocratic lineage known for their bad spelling. Opportunities for improvisation are built into the text, such as when Matthew runs off in panic at the end of act one and Max chases after him, so Stephen has to vamp. He does a nervous little dance.

But what do they have to be nervous about? They are only improving upon the greatest wordsmith in the English language, boiling down his genius, if you will. At the beginning they lament that "our society's collective capacity to comprehend — much less than attain — the genius of a William Shakespeare has been systematically shrunken by sitcoms, sodomized by soap operas." Their offering is a public service.

Too humble to pretend to genius themselves, their quotations are sometimes a little off ("that which is called a nose would by any other name still smell"), and a prelude to Romeo and Juliet is a little wobbly in the recollection ("where in a scene of timeless romance, he'll try to get into Juliet's pants"). The bit with the funniest sight gags is the blood-fest Titus Andronicus, performed as a cooking show. A villain-head pie is clamped in the bloody stumps of Lavinia as she mumbles tongueless observations. They recognize that if Shakespeare were around today and in Hollywood, the franchise would be up to Titus Andronicus IX: Just Desserts.

Occasionally a gag is lame, such as when one of them misunderstands what a Moor is and starts speechifying draped in toy boats. But speaking of Othello, they do a very funny summary of the play, as a rap performance ("And a punk named Iago who made hisself a menace/'Cos he didn't like Othello, the Moor of Venice"). Perhaps inspired by that success, they run through the history plays as a football game with color commentary, with the crown snapped to Richard II as he limps downfield, etc.

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