NEW YORK—The Reduced Shakespeare Company, now at the New Victory Theater, certainly lives up to its name with its popular The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). It’s a hilarious, irreverent, and energetic look at the works of the Bard of Stratford on Avon.
Company members Reed Martin, Matt Rippy, and Austin Tichenor gleefully condense all 37 recognized Shakespeare plays into a less than two-hour period (including intermission). Martin and Tichenor also directed the piece, which was written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, with additional material by Martin, and revisions by Singer and Winfield.
After dispatching Romeo and Juliet (pun intended) in about 12 minutes time, it’s determined that at the same pace, it would take over 7 hours to get through the rest of the works, forcing the trio to kick things into high gear. Thus, “Titus Andronicus” is reduced to a segment on a cooking show; the various history plays are dealt with in a football game; and the plot of Othello is delivered in a rap number.
It’s when they start addressing the comedies that the similarity of the Shakespeare plots becomes evident. For example, which play features a shipwreck? Which one has at least one female character disguising herself as a male, or a male nobleman or noblemen disguising themselves as people of different social strata? (Hint: more than one—to all of the above.)
With that in mind, the troupe combines the text of the various comedies, reading aloud and acting out pertinent bits of dialogue until the plots all coalesce into one story, which is then wrapped up for the audience’s consumption. Later on, they even throw in some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, whittled down to the size of a postcard (literally).
With all but one of the plays taken care of before intermission, the second half is devoted to what the company considers the crown jewel in the Shakespeare canon, that being “Hamlet.” But not simply content to race through the text, they instead get the audience involved in a psychological deconstruction of Hamlet’s id, ego, and superego and showcase the frenetic nature of the Melancholy Dane’s tortured mind, as well as numerous moments of screaming anguish. (All of which got a big hand at the end.)
The entire evening is quite enjoyable, with Martin, Rippy, and Tichenor poking fun at the sameness of many of the Bard’s plots, as well as his flowery speeches and monologues. They even poke fun at how he probably took many of his ideas from the Roman playwrights Plautus, Terence, and Ovid, and also borrowed from Italian art form Commedia dell’Arte. (“Shakespeare didn’t plagiarize, he distilled,” one of them points out.) But at the same time, the three never look down on the actual writings, showing a great deal of respect for both the material and the author.
Martin is the straight man of the group, trying to prevent things from degenerating into total chaos; while Rippy is more prone to temper tantrums (such as when he runs screaming out of the theater and feigns vomiting on the audience), all the while protesting he’s always the one who has to play the women roles. Tichenor acts as a sort of bridge between the two comic extremes, alternatively a pre- and post-eminent Shakespearian scholar; he varies his delivery to fit the needs of the production.
The only puzzle is why the show is playing at a venue that features works for children and their families, as the piece is filled with double entendres and some off-color remarks (albeit quite tame), such as a reference to the title of the play Coriolanus. Still the kids certainly seemed to be having a good time, with the actors often playing directly to them, thus keeping the little ones engaged in the proceedings.
The direction is fine, with the performers more concerned with making the show funny than having it make perfect sense, but in that regard, they succeed admirably. (They even manage to go through a Shakespeare play backwards!)
S.W. Wellen’s set design is both majestic and functional, while the props and costumes (credited to Susan Brooks, Nicole Donery, Dancing Barefoot Productions, and CMC & Design), including a wig continually moved from one part of a corpse to another, all work quite well.
This show is not intended for those who don’t have at least a passing interest in you-know-who, but for those who do, it’s a lot of fun. As for those Shakespearian lovers and scholars out there, this is a definite must-see.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)
New Victory Theater
209 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 646-223-3010 or www.newvictory.org
Running Times: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Closes: March 14
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.