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Chicago by John Olson

The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)
NightBlue Performing Arts Company

Also see John's reviews of August: Osage County, Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape

The Compleat Works of Wilm Shkspr (abridged)
Mark Stickney, Jennifer Reeves Wilson
and Jamin Gahm

The title must be one of the most intriguing of all time. How can anyone, least of all a cast of only three, abridge the Bard's 37 plays and 154 sonnets into a coherent evening? The piece, written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, was first performed in 1987 by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a San Francisco-based troupe dedicated to parodying Shakespeare's work. It's been performed internationally since, including hit productions in London and New York in the '90s. How do they do it? With extended parodies of Shakespeare's best-known two plays (Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet), condensing all the comedies into a single comedy (not as hard as it sounds), and doing the histories as a football game of sorts in which the crown is passed from player to player. The other tragedies get a little more time—Othello is done as a rap, Titus Andronicus as a Julia Child cooking show, and the Apocrypha (or lesser plays) are condensed as well. They cheat on the sonnets, threatening to ask the audience to read them off a 3" x 5" note card, but nobody seems to mind.

The three players here are up to the task, with unflagging energy over the hour and 45 minutes of playing time, interrupted by a 15-minute intermission. Mark Stickney, who would appear to have the chops to do the real thing, is the "smart" player, exasperated at the antics of the goofy and lanky Jamin Gahm. The only female member, Jennifer Reeves Wilson, is a versatile, feminine yet hardly fragile comedienne, in the Lucille Ball tradition. Her Julia Child take on Titus is a highlight of the show.

The show's format offers opportunity for ad libs and localization, of which the cast and director Paul Packer take advantage. Jokes of local community colleges and ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich abound. There's room for improv and audience participation as well, as in the second half when the entire audience gets to join in a scene from Hamlet.

There are no credits listed for costume or set designers, but both are quite nicely handled. Authentic-looking Shakespearean costumes and a regal set of classical columns set the mood. The evening requires only rudimentary knowledge of Shakespeare, for the most part (though I'll confess I wouldn't have entirely gotten the jokes about Titus Andronicus without having seen trailers for Julie Taymor's film adaptation of the violent tragedy). Two hours of Shakespeare parody felt like about twice what I would have needed, though. The second half's Hamlet parody drags, as the cast does it forward and backwards, in slow motion and fast. The show's bits are mostly all good on their own, but might be more successful in smaller doses as part of a more broadly-themed comedy show.

The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged) will play At The Theater Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago through February 14, 2010. No show on Sunday February 7. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or the Theater Building Box Office (773-327-5252).


Photo: Paul Packer

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-- John Olson



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