The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
I mean, I don't feel any smarter. But I may feel a little less ashamed of my own dumb American brain, which would like to reduce everything important down to a pie fight, whenever possible. And, fortunately for me, director Suki Peters turns out to be a mighty queen of chaos, because it all just goes flying in every direction in spite of the huge amount of calculation required to keep this hot mess churning away for 90 minutes or so. It's got everything but Queen Elizabeth (the First) jumping out of a helicopter, and I wouldn't put that past them in some future staging.
It also doesn't hurt that The Lion King will be touring through town this weekend, just a block souththere are five or six jokes riffing on that little coincidence, building up to a great surprise in act two, where the boys try to summarize Hamlet. Jamie Kurth, Joshua Nash Payne and Ben Ritchie each play many roles in their lives on stage, with high points including Mr. Kurth doing an excellent impression as a bloodied Julia Child, straining the guts out of Titus Andronicus, Mr. Ritchie going unintentionally mad in the hallowed halls of Elsinore, and Mr. Payne in multiple wigs and dresses, or in pretty much anything. I know those basic story elements are probably the same as the last time I saw them, but so many of the jokes are so "of the moment," I felt like a huge portion of the show was new to me.
There's a wonderful natural quality to the performances, at least in the early going, before the whole thing turns into an absolute lunatic ward. And, of course, that initial level of probability gives the show a great sense of skyrocketing hysteria through all the storieswhich are somehow a lot funnier, as everything seems sort of blindly feltout along the way.
They say Comedy was devised some decades after Tragedy, and quite possibly for the exact same reasons this show works so well. You can almost imagine the first time some poor Greek actor dropped his mask on stage, in some dramatic moment, giving birth to an entirely new genre. If that's at all true, then Complete Works may be the most authentic form of comedy, with all its horrendous blasphemies against bloodshed and the Bard. It also proves you can have a pretty terrific time in the most tragic stage moments of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, if your tour guides are just crazy (and cagey) enough.
Through August 19, 2012, at the Grandel Theatre, between the Fox and Powell Hall, a mile north of I-64 on Grand Ave. Visit www.stlshakespeare.org or call (314) 361-5664 for more information.