Shakespeare Meets the Marx Brothers
By Kathy Peterson
What happens when you put all of Shakespeare’s plays in a blender, push ‘shred,’ and then hand them to a trio of brilliant comic actors? You get The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). This is the third main stage play of this year’s Great River Shakespeare Festival, and was written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. The Actors Three who take on the task of performing all 37 plays in 97 minutes are GRSF veterans Christopher Gerson, Chris Mixon, and relative newbie Brian White. After launching the evening with Romeo and Juliet and wrapping it up in about 14 minutes, they figure out that at this pace it will take over seven hours to get through the rest of the plays. This forces the trio to kick things into high gear, so we have the history plays dispatched via football game, the plot of Othello delivered in a rap number, Macbeth dueling with golf clubs, and various other inventive plot delivery methods.
One feels Will would more than approve of the irreverent handling of his works; he himself considered any and every subject fair game. Besides, it’s one of the most hilarious plays you’ll ever see and Will appreciated getting laughs. The actors have a ball poking fun at Shakespeare’s tendency to write the same play over and over again, not to mention stealing his plots from other writers, and reveling in guts and gore. To perform at this extraordinary level of energetic enthusiasm, which borders on complete lunacy, is a glorious testament to the commitment of the three actors; they run and yell and scream and jump and sweat (!) their way through the evening. A word to the wise: this is not a play for young children since there is a bit of adult language and bawdy humor throughout the romp.
Gerson (playing himself – they all play “themselves”) comes across as the most cautious of the group, trying to prevent things from degenerating into complete bedlam, while White is the youngster who has to play all the women’s roles and is prone to fake-vomiting on the audience. Mixon is presumably a pre- and post-eminent Shakespearian scholar who’s up for anything. The chemistry needed to make the evening work is very evident among these three; they perform the script like they’ve been a comedy trio for years. There is a fair amount of improvisation required throughout the performance; the frenetic pace causes props and costumes and wigs to fly on and off and when a mistake occurs they just milk it for more laughs.
Once the histories and comedies and most of the tragedies are dispatched with varying degrees of abbreviation, bawdiness, and slapstick — at one point there is a purple blow-up dinosaur — the only play remaining is the intimidating, iconic Hamlet, which takes up the entire second half of the evening. At the thought of performing Hamlet, White runs screaming out of the theatre pursued by Mixon. Gerson is a deer in the headlights as he attempts to hold the audience’s attention alone. Once they agree they must grapple with Hamlet, it’s a tough gig and they elicit help from a few audience members to discover Ophelia’s id, ego, and superego. It’s all about the layers!
This is a play that can easily deteriorate into chaos. To do it really well, which these actors do, they must have a core of healthy respect for both the material and the author. The fourth partner-in-crime is director Melissa Rain Anderson, who reined in these lunatics during the rehearsal/brainstorming/improvisation-gone-mad process and crafted a classic comedy that is perfectly balanced between mayhem and method. She is the glue that binds the absurdity of this condensed comic Shakespeare journey together. Anderson made her GRSF debut last year as the director of The Fantastiks. It is hoped that she’ll be invited back in the future, since her first two productions for GRSF have been terrific. A special shout-out to the SIX female props staff who stand behind the scenery and keep straight all the crazy costumes, wigs, and props for the guys on stage, as well as which of the many doors and windows they’re supposed to vault through next. Nice job, ladies!
This show is extremely funny for those who don’t have much familiarity with Shakespeare, and for those who do, it is simply non-stop hilarity and a must-see. The Great River Shakespeare Festival season runs through August 5. For complete information, and to order tickets, visit the website www.grsf.org or call 507-474-7900.