The Complete Works of William Shakespeare-Abridged – Review by Tom Nissley

There was a time in the twentieth century when a new book about Shakespeare was published every day and you couldn’t be a real Shakespearian without trying to read perpetually. Three wags (Adam Long, Daniel Winger, and Jess Winfield) put together a production which attempted to cover ALL of Shakespeare in one quick splash. They took it to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987, and it then moved into London’s Criterion Theatre where it ran for nine years. It’s been redrawn from time to time, and still circulates, which is why it’s playing with three other wags now: “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – Abridged”

The three Connecticut wags are Hanna Cheek, Rich Holman, and Playhouse on Park’s co-Artistic Director, Sean Harris. They’ve been staging the famous take-off, with the help of Director Tom Ridgely, at Playhouse on Park, and it a great, fun, production. It’s traditional for the actors playing in this show to use their own names. So, after a short introduction by Hanna, Sean delivers an ode to the Bard, declaring his campaign to have the Collected Works in every hotel bedside table. And then Rich, who has ‘pretended’ to be part of the audience, 1) drops and rearranges his notes – that’s scripted – and 2) reads from those notes the history of Will Shakespeare’s life, including how his troops invaded Poland at the beginning of WW II. It is packaged campus humor right from the 1980’s, and although there are a few updates – when once the audience was asked to pass around notecards with abridged Sonnets on them, Hanna instead invited us all to pass along pledge cards for the development branch of Playhouse on Park – for the most part this spontaneous comedy moves along very much as it did when it was first introduced.

The three actors are so well fused together that their work can only be called an ensemble production. They run through the Comedies, observing that they mostly tell the same plot over and over only changing the names of the characters. They move the Histories into the Sports Column, passing the English Crown as if it was a football, passing the crown or running for touchdowns to demonstrate the change from one king to the next, throwing in a limping and exaggerated shoulder (in a quick dash down the field) for the non-Tudor Richard III. They resist performing ‘Coriolanus’ because of its nasty name. But then decide to give a full-blown short form of ‘Hamlet,’ following the intermission.

The “Complete Works…” ‘Hamlet’ is a true piece de resistance, with the ghost, the night watch, Sean as the despairing prince, Hanna jumping in as Polonius, Rich as Ophelia, a nod to the skull of Yorick, the poison in the ear in the play within the play, the return of Laertes, the duel (along with a warning to the kids – “Don’t try this at home”), the poisoned goblet, and bitter End! And it’s interactive. The audience helps define the complex emotions of Ophelia. But wait. Not fast enough? They do a quickie run through again. And still again – whoosh! Then they run it backwards. All that’s left is laughter and lots of well-earned applause.

If you consider yourself a Shakespeare fan, and you haven’t absorbed this yet, hurry to the last few performances this week and enjoy it. Tickets and information at www.playhouseonpark.org, or call 860-523-5900 x10.

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