It's the end of the first act of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and the trio of actors in Phare Play Productions's energetic and very, very funny performance—Michael Climek, Ben Klier, and Scott Morales—cheerfully congratulate themselves on having completed all 37 of Shakespeare's plays. But, as they double-check the program, the three are struck with a visible panic at what they have skipped—and though I have never seen the play before, I know exactly what's coming. How could any Shakespeare parody be complete without poking fun at Hamlet—or, according to Complete Works (and everyone else, apparently), "the greatest play ever written"?
That's the thing that makes this play tick. The reverence we give to Shakespeare can literally make audience members, performers, and literature students nervous. This hyper-paced comedy doesn't get its manic energy just from affectionately making fun of Shakespeare's plays—it runs as well on making fun of the frenzy he sends people into.
Complete Works, originally performed and still linked to the Reduced Shakespeare Company, sprints through abbreviated comic versions of the Bard's plays using only three male actors. With few props and no set to speak of—other than an intentionally fake white curtain—the actors, who address each other with their real names, alternate between joviality, hammy smugness, and a jittery, nervous panic. Appropriately, one of them plays a Shakespearian "scholar" who can't keep anything straight. They sail through the comedies, but find much more to laugh at in the tragedies (a full-scale rap on Othello is particularly noteworthy). The second act is entirely devoted to Hamlet.
While I wouldn't necessarily say that familiarity with Shakespeare is a prerequisite for enjoying the show—there is much flat-out improvisation and physical comedy from the actors—I do think it helps. My favorite scene, a well-executed Titus Andronicus in the context of a cooking show, might not be quite as funny to someone who wasn't familiar with the plot's cannibalistic bent.
The production is pretty low-budget, but by and large it works. One of the things that makes it so much fun is that the actors clearly revel in the material. That they're enjoying themselves so much allows the audience to do so as well. Bounding across the stage in sneakers and tights, they give an energetic performance that borders on the acrobatic, sometimes with a volume too loud for the Lodestar Theater space.
But they're also a tight trio—the speeches given in unison are well executed enough to give the production some polish. In one particular scene—and whether this is due to the actors' chops or to a sharp sensibility on director Christine Vinh's part, I can't say for sure—Scott Morales gives a thoughtful, intimate monologue enhanced by the other two watching him in respectful silence. And although it's, of course, a setup for a gag, it's affecting enough to suggest that these guys know how to do more than just goof off. (And goofing off well is a lot of work too.)
The three are decent improvisers; they've added plenty of their own material, some of which is pulled out of recent headlines and pop culture (one of them got in a Don Imus reference) and some of which comes from playing off the audience's responses. If audience participation is not to your taste, this is probably not the best show for you. These three are pretty aggressive about including the audience members in the performance, and they sometimes single people out.
The cross-dressing gags do get old pretty fast, and there's certainly more than a few moments that get lost in the unceasing frenzy. But if you're looking for a competent production that will make you laugh, you'll find it here.