As humans, we have a penchant for reducing large things so they take up less space or time. This curious inclination has resulted in "achievements" such as the Smart car, Reader's Digest edited novels, and aerosol cheese.
Then there's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), the maniacally loopy compression of the Bard's canon now on the Great Lakes Theater Festival stage. It was written, if that's the right term, by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, who originally performed their slapstick send-up in bits and pieces at various "Renaissance Faires" in England.
For the past quarter-century, numerous acting companies have taken a swipe at this two-hour track race, including GLTF itself, back in 2004. It's an enticing production because it's outrageous, often very funny, and loaded with contemporary references (paging the usual suspects: Justin Bieber, Black Swan, and, of course, Charlie Sheen).
However, two hours of broad farce without any intellectual leavening can eventually fall flat. This happens despite the best efforts and intentions of the cast.
And the Great Lakes cast is admirably strong and enthusiastic. Getting off to a good start, Jason O'Connell plays a red coat Hanna Theatre usher trying to quell the rowdy inclinations of M.A. Taylor, bedecked in Cleveland Indians drag and pretending to be a local dimwit.
O'Connell makes some witty asides about the "Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson" lobby bar, as well as noting Tom's favorite urinal when he visits ("The one by the wall. He's earned his privacy.") This turns out to be a very welcoming starting place for the show, and gives O'Connell a running joke that he deftly mines for the remainder of the evening.
Once the Shakespeare begins, with a ten-minute rendering of Romeo and Juliet, the wacky one-liners compete with blazingly unsubtle performances. One can easily imagine that plays in Shakespeare's time were often performed with this level of bawdy spirit, to keep their audiences enthralled, but probably without the allusions to The Lion King and The Matrix.
When the actors, who also include Paul Hurley, recognize that they can never cover all the plays by devoting ten minutes to each, the pace increases to warp speed. Titus Andronicus is chopped up and dispatched as a cooking show, and Othello is handled as a rap song: "Iago loved Desi like Adonis loved Venus, and Desi loved Othello 'cause he had a big ... sword!"
Yes, the jokes — ribald and otherwise — fly high and fast. But there's not much time to groan since the next awful joke comes charging in on the heels of the last one.
One of the cleverest bits is when the actors convene on stools to read all of Will's comedies as one play. By combining Shakespeare's well-known formulas for comedy success — such as fateful shipwrecks, convenient twins, and transgender switches — this story time is an amusing feast, especially for Shakespeare lovers.
Yep, there's something for everyone. Enjoy pro football? The historical plays are rendered in scrimmage formation with familiar NFL music playing in the background. Spider-man fan? He makes an appearance, swinging through and bumping into things. Is politics your passion? Obama is pulled into the mix along with Gaddafi, Sarah Palin, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
After dealing in one fashion or another with 36 plays before intermission, there is only Hamlet to fence with afterwards. Hurley has his best moments here as he plays the indecisive Prince amid references to old films and LeBron's "Decision": We are all witnesses!
As amusing as it can be, Works eventually feels like being accosted by that guy at a party who's trying too hard to make everything a joke. You just want him to back off. In fact, Taylor actually does so, in the one straight reading of a Shakespearean passage. You can almost hear the audience sigh with relief.
Still, director Charles Fee is true to the material, keeping most of it at the breakneck pace it demands. Plus, the simple set by Gage Williams and the quick-change costumes by Charlotte Yetman (some featuring comically obvious codpieces) work well.
Even though the ending is clever, it lacks the fevered urgency that could send the show over the top. This is when the actors should ramp up the wattage in their attempts to do the utterly absurd: Hamlet done fast, then super-fast, and then backwards! That would send the audience off on a high that even Will would envy.