Don’t go to Theatre Memphis
’ production of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)
unless you like good acting, stupid gags, and Falstaff-sized belly laughs. It’s a perfectly entertaining night in the theater, and I’m more than a little surprised to find myself typing those words. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s signature piece with its abundant (sometimes dated) pop culture references, and glib approach to the material. But Theatre Memphis’ production is completely current, with enough heart to comfort like sunshine after rain.
You don't have to know very much about Shakespeare to get the jokes here. And, in spite of the title’s promise, audiences won’t leave the theater knowing any more about the plays and poems than they did when tickets were purchased. This is an improv-based comedy show using Shakespeare’s lingering notoriety as a jumping off point. The sonnets are acknowledged, but unaddressed, the histories are lumped together in a football-inspired sketch full of handoffs, interceptions, and skullduggery. And, in a gag about Shakespeare’s most recycled plot devices, many popular comedies, and most of the obscure works are lumped together and presented as if they were a single, and singularly ridiculous play. It’s fun stuff, but it’s not going to help anybody fake their way through cocktail party conversations about Timon of Athens
. (Like that’s ever happened).
A more honest title for this slow-starting, but ultimately satisfying literary romp, might be Shkspr’s Greatest Hits (Abridged)
, as Romeo & Juliet
ultimately get the most love, and the latter is literally performed both forward and backward. (“Oob!” may be Shkspr's
funniest line, but that’s all I’m saying about that.) Although metatext is left unspoken, the shows thesis is inspired by the original Man in Black’s sage advice to actors: “Suit the action to the word and the word to the action.” Only, in this case, the goal is to see how much fun you can have un-suiting the action to the word. Cheap theatrics abound, sock puppets steal the show, and, as is the case with most roller coaster rides, somebody will be thrown up on. Possibly more than once.
There’s nothing harder to pull off than scripted spontaneity, but director Jeffrey W. Posson has brought together a fine trio of actors, able to break in and out of character, and through the theater’s invisible fourth, fifth, and sixth walls like soldiers born under mars. It’s a tight ensemble able to solo like Coltrane, when their turns come around. Meghan Lisi brings a lot of Shakesperiance to the table. She shines throughout, though maybe not as brightly as in the real thing. Joshua Hitt gives a fun, unfussy performance, playing himself as an affable dork caught up in circumstances beyond his control. And by “circumstances,” I’m referring primarily to the antics of Kevar Maffitt who’s been given the evenings silliest and most sincere moments. He nails every bit of it. “What a piece of work is man,” indeed.
“Oob!” may be Shkspr's funniest line, but that’s all I’m saying about that.
One of the best things about this production is how it’s energetic and forward-moving without ever being rushed. It’s an object lesson for those who think screwball comedy needs to be performed at breakneck speed. In the spirit of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists
, Posson & crew take the time required to let “real things” occur. Remarkable how fascinating it can be, in proper context, to just sit back and watch a wind up toy wind down.
I still like pieces of the Compleat Wrks better than the whole. But with deft direction, great acting, and top-notch design by Jack Yates and Kristen Redding, Theatre Memphis’ production is the compleat package. Nothing abridged about it.