REVIEW: Centre Stage Presents ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare’

By Steve Wong
DRAMA CRITIC

I wish my high school English teacher had taken our class to see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), presented by Greenville’s Centre Stage, before torturing us with the textbook reading of Romeo and Juliet. Watching two guys wearing pandemic masks trying not to kiss in the death scene gives the whole play new meaning  — or not.

Absurd as it may seem, condensing all of the Bard’s 38 plays into a two-hour comedy is well worth seeing, if for no other reason than to just laugh at how low high-brow theatre can go. And, low they do go. Actors Austin J. Kara, Ben Otto Sunderman, and Joshua Thomason fully embrace the manical and hysterical concept that all of Shakespeare’s plays can be the butt of a joke or two as they string together various scenes all interlaced with their own modern-day foibles. Some of the plays, such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, are poked at with a degree of detail; other plays, whose names none of us can ever remember, are just one-liners tossed over the stage’s fourth wall. Some shtick; others make us regret not paying more attention to our required high school reading.

It is indeed the actors who make this play succeed. Originally produced in the early 1980s by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield for the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in California, The Complete Works is quick-witted, fast-paced, and not above pulling sandwiches out of crotches. But like all good comedic writing, the words are only as good as the actors delivering the lines. Austin, Ben, and Josh take this comedy serious enough to drop all of their ambitions (as well as their pants) to scream like little girls, run and roll amok, and act the fool. Each actor plays himself more or less.

To give the play some sense of structure, Austin is the good-natured guy trying to hold the play together, while Josh is either wearing a red wig for the umteenth time or projectile barfing. All the while, the pseudo-scholar Ben quotes Elizabethan scripts with bad accents. Throughout the play, the actors talk directly to the audience when they aren’t satirically struggling “to be or not to be.” Audience participation is also a key element: Be warned, the actors often call out patrons with male-pattern baldness or those discretely trying to exit the theater. Woe be it to the patron drafted on stage to scream Ophelia’s signature scream.

Just how far off the deep end do these actors go to get a good laugh? Is it possible to confuse Shakespeare with Hilter? Yes. Is Anne Hathaway Shakespeare’s wife or a modern-day actress — or both? I’m so confused. It does take a bit of talent to rap Orthello. Is that Horatio or fellatio? And why is Julia Childs cooking a human head? Darn, if I had paid attention to the reading of Titus Andronicus I might understand what is meant by “play the cook.”

Scene by scene, The Complete Works careen to where no Shakespearean play has gone before. By the time these guys decide to play Hamlet at high speed and backwards,  there’s no going back to anything remotely serious. And, that is the point — just three wild and crazy guys shticking it to Shakespeare.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) continues through November 7 at Centre Stage in Greenville. Visit www.centrestage.org for tickets.

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