A laugh-filled, completely thought-free take on Shakespeare's plays

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival staged a pretty good version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) five years ago — so I'm not sure why the CSF decided to bring it back this season. The show, written in 1987 by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, does make for a laugh-filled, thought-free evening — and maybe that's useful, with Macbeth and Richard II lurking on the horizon. But now that the festival seems to be fruitfully reinventing itself, I'd like to see more inventiveness in the scheduling, too.

Complete Works purports to deliver all of Shakespeare's plays in a single evening — because who has the time or inclination to watch the entire oeuvre? Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski, Ian Andersen and Evan Zes, the three hyperkinetic actors who perform this marvel of compaction, even threaten to throw in the sonnets as well. The script leaves lots of room for byplay, improvisation and audience engagement, which means the actors' personal idiosyncrasies become a large part of the entertainment, and local and contemporary references are liberally tossed in.

The actors make mincemeat of the tender first meeting of Romeo and Juliet (naturally, given the format, someone has to be in drag a lot of the time). This is a very bouncy Juliet, who at one point morphs into her own cousin, Tybalt; does a lot of on-stage vomiting; and discovers — though with remarkable unconcern — that the dagger she's supposed to stab herself with won't work because it's rubber. Titus Andronicus — in which a villainous mother is fed a pie containing the heads of her two sons — is presented as a cooking show. Golf caps and clubs dominate Macbeth. The comedies are condensed into one narration that twines together all the plays' improbable plots, and each play is disposed of more quickly and efficiently than the one before. The history plays become a football game with the crown as football — an extended piece of business that could have been more crisply executed. Then the guys begin arguing about whether they're obligated to do Hamlet; two race off, and the third, alone and forlorn on the stage, calls for an intermission. The story of the melancholy Dane takes up the entire second act.


The Complete Works of Shakespeare

Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 17, University Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, coloradoshakes.org.

There are moments that are close to inspired, as when the cast selects a woman from the audience to play Ophelia (on the night I was there, they found a delightfully good-natured one) and then persuades the other audience members to portray her id, ego and superego by chanting and waving their hands. And the three actors are all talented. Andersen has good comic timing, and he's particularly effective as Hamlet, sulking through the role in a glossy, girly black wig and constantly referring to himself as "Lulu." Patrick Elkins-Zeglarski tends to play affable straight man to the others, and he does it with charm. Evan Zes is a cheeky, irrepressible bundle of crazed energy.

Still, there's really not much here here. There are no incisive parodies, no attempts to mimic Shakespeare's verse or style, no pouncing on the actual absurdities in his plays — of which there are many. This isn't the kind of satire that arises from a real affection for the work, but the kind of humor you'd expect from a bunch of clever undergraduates studying for finals while chugging beer. Why is Othello presented as a rap song? Hey, the protagonist is black. And once you've announced the Titus Andronicus cooking show, the joke's over; there's nothing more to see except a bit of splutter. By contrast, Buntport staged this peculiar play as a musical in its entirety some years back while staying true — sort of — to the actual plot of Titus Andronicus, and its version was much funnier and smarter than this one. It also illuminated both the absurdity of the play — which experts for a long time refused to believe Shakespeare actually wrote — and the odd moments of interest and invention in the text.


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