No one picks up Cliffs Notes for the pleasure of reading, but The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), currently running at the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane University, shows that encapsulation can be wildly amusing. The premise of the play is to gloss all of Shakespeare's plays in two hours. While it names all of them, it only dwells on plays, scenes and characters ripe for parody or a raunchy bit.
The comedy is as clever as it is bawdy, and it's entertaining whether one appreciates all the erudite references and jokes about theatrical conventions, or whether one comes to it tabula rasa. The play was created by the Reduced Shakespeare Company and originally presented at the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It calls for the actors to bulldoze the fourth wall and talk to the audience constantly — and at times enlist members to play parts. At Tulane, Andrew Vaught, Brendan Bowen and Clint Johnson give the show a fast and furious whirl.
After an introduction full of local references, the trio launches into Romeo and Juliet. It's one of the highlights, introducing the overall show's heavy reliance on crossdressing and homoerotic anxiety for repeated laughs, here between Romeo (Vaught) and Juliet (Johnson), but also between Juliet and Bowen, whom she mounted as an improvised balcony.
Titus Andronicus follows, and the bloodbath is imagined as a cooking show. The script allows for ample timely and local references. Othello, performed as a rap song, includes a reference to celebrity chef Paula Deen.
Midway through Act 1, all the comedies are thrown into a blender and read as a combined story, an absurdist tale of numerous siblings separated at birth, mistaken identities and characters washed up on unfamiliar shores. The piece works much better when parodying famous scenes and characters, as in the lightning-quick, extremely essentialist Macbeth.
Act 2 is devoted to Hamlet, presented through the lens of various psychological analyses of the work. Condensing it to overwrought vignettes is hilarious, and then there's a detour into chaos as the entire audience assumes supporting roles in a scene focused on Ophelia.
The Complete Works can equally please those who love Shakespeare and those who dread serious theater. Under Carl Walker's direction, this production is nimble, lighthearted and at times silly. Vaught, Bowen and Johnson revel in scenes of mock gravitas and in clownlike bits. It's a fun show that proves less can be much, much more. — WILL COVIELLO