Selling Avon

Fast and funny, The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) skewers the Bard and honors him, too. In fact, the more you love Shake-speare, the more amused you're likely to be by this jolly nonsense, now in its regional premiere. The comedy, which replaces Shake-speare's immortal verse with game-show pandering, burlesque waggery and Marx Brothers-styled barbs, is Theatre on Broadway's attempt to reach out to family audiences. While it may have a few too many sexual allusions for some families, rest assured: TV sitcoms are a lot worse.

Three actors introduce us to the show's fractured Masterpiece Theater approach, summed up (with no apologies to Natalie Pujo) as "real life, real news, real Shakespeare." Brian J. Harper, Tobias Levine and Nicholas Sugar start out slow and gain momentum with a short biographical piece in which Harper confuses Shakespeare with Hitler. Then the guys plunge into Romeo and Juliet, with the bearded Harper playing the women's roles. A horrible gnat-infested wig and some heavy padding in the chest department make him look funny enough, and more laughs ensue when the bearded wench won't let Romeo kiss her. Titus Andronicus features a cooking show in which human flesh is on the menu, while Othello is delivered in rap--reminiscent of the urban-contemporary Hamlet served up in Renaissance Man, Penny Marshall's film about an English teacher at an Army boot camp.

Just when you begin to wonder how the trio is going to cover all of Shakespeare's plays, even in these short vignettes, the boys lift elements from each of the Bard's sixteen comedies and weave them into one blazing tour de farce. Along the way, they parody performance art and turn the War of the Roses into a football game, complete with the "perfect cheer" of the Saturday Night Live sketch. And all in the first act.

We have to wait for Act Two to get to the most famous of all Shakespeare's plays. And at this point, the audience is drawn into the show, with victims chosen at random to help tell the tale of Hamlet. The actors plunge in with so much goofballery--climbing onto audience members' laps and at times resorting to what they delicately refer to as "vomit humor"--that you'd think they couldn't utter a serious syllable. Until, that is, Harper delivers a very respectable "What a piece of work is man" speech and reminds you that these men are actors, not just Stooges.

After running through the entire play--an abridged version, of course--the three demonstrate that, if pushed, they can do it even faster. So they knock off a one-minute version of Hamlet, followed by a twenty-second rendition. Finally, they perform the play backward, starting at the end and finishing at the beginning.

Not surprisingly, the sheer novelty of condensing a four-hour play into a few seconds--and Shakespeare's entire canon into two hours--generates much of the laughter. But none of this frenzy would work in less talented hands. Steven Tangedal's inventive direction keeps the physical humor pumping almost nonstop--there are moments when it's hard to catch a breath between laughs. Harper is charming and awkward in all the right places, Levine manages to lend a braininess to the physical comedy, and Sugar, as always, is nicely naughty, bumptious and cute. The joke's the thing, and these three outrageous comics (with their slings and arrows) make laughers of us all.--Mason

The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), through March 1 at the Theatre on Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 860-9360.


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