Anyone who has ever taken a high school English class has probably groaned upon seeing Shakespeare on the syllabus.
William Shakespeare’s plots are heavy and convoluted, with complex characters and confusing language that often feels quite dull for a modern audience.
That’s why the Bard is lucky that the Fell’s Point Corner Theatre is giving him new life by deciding to take on every single one of his plays with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged!) Yes, you heard that correctly! Every single one! But don’t start falling asleep yet because this isn’t like any Shakespeare play you’ve ever seen.
Directed by Howard Berkowitz, the play uses one of Shakespeare’s famous plot devices, the play-within-a-play, to follow the story of well-meaning but failing actors as they try to perform Shakespeare’s 37 plays and 153 sonnets.
There are only three performers, Bart Debicki, Holly Gibbs, and Anne Shoemaker, but you don’t even notice the small cast when you see them bounce off each other in hilarious bursts of physical comedy. Shoemaker is deadpan and snarky with an obsession for the show Glee. Gibbs is over-the-top with a penchant for fake vomiting on the audience.And, Debicki is a Shakespeare fan who earnestly wants to perform him correctly, even penning a biography about him called “Ask Me About My Willy”.
As you can imagine, it ends disastrously. The sets fall apart, stories get misinterpreted, there’s fake blood and bad costumes everywhere, the actors forget their lines and run off stage, and it’s all absolutely hilarious. But despite how clueless these characters are about how to put on a show, they have moments of silly brilliance while undergoing the impossible task of performing Shakespeare’s body of work in and hour and thirty minutes. For example, they perform Titus Andronicus as a cooking show, complete with a fake severed head in a casserole dish, and Othello as a rap. Debicki’s character condenses all 16 of Shakespeare’s comedic plays into one screenplay, and it’s one of the best bits of the show because of how his screenplay reads like a Saturday Night Live version of Midsummer’s Night Dream.
It’s probably the only Shakespeare performance you’ll ever see that use plastic dinosaurs, a ukulele, and Converse sneakers as props, that’s for sure.
At intermission, an audience member said “I wish I could have some of whatever they’re having,” most likely referring to the high-energy buffoonery that occurred as the players ran, lept, danced, sword-fought, across the stage. The three of them had a great chemistry and on-point comedic timing that made every gag so much more funny.
But behind the characters, it’s clear that the three players have serious acting chops. There’s one point when Gibbs earnestly performs a soliloquy from Hamlet with a deep brooding passion and it’s very well-done and touching. Then she immediately snaps out of this and starts rolling around on the floor screeching, providing a real glimpse into the acting talent you need to be so goofy and to play such exaggerated characters.
The show can be read as a parody of those uppity “intellectuals” we all know who look down on people for not memorizing every single Shakespearean sonnet. Shoemaker even skewers this by saying to an audience member with a scoff, “What do you mean you don’t know what King John is about? It’s obviously about a king named John!” The knowledge of this gentle mocking tops off the witty play well, adding a modern commentary to these century-old works.
As Shakespeare himself was a jokester who would try to sneak as many dirty jokes as possible into his work it’s conceivable that he’d get a kick out of seeing his plays interpreted this way.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged!) runs until April 12 at the Fells Point Corner Theatre located at 251 S. Ann St.
by GIANNA DECARLO EDITOR@BALTIMOREGUIDE.COM