At New Swan, ‘Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ is Hilarious Improv Comedy

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Scene from “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” / photo by Jesús E. López Vargas

By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy

It would take months and a dedicated core of theater enthusiasts to stage every play written by Shakespeare – and presenting each drama, comedy and historical play in their entirety would be a monumental endeavor.

Enter “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” whose goal is to pare each of the Bard of Avon’s plays down to the bare minimum and present them all in one sitting, so absurdly minimized as to generate laughter.

“Complete Works” is the second comedy in the outdoor summertime New Swan Shakespeare Festival’s current season.

New Swan traditionally features one Shakespeare drama and one comedy, performed in repertory. This year’s shows are “Julius Caesar” and “As You Like It.” The inclusion of “Complete Works” creates two comedy slots and represents the first time in the Irvine troupe’s 11 seasons that it has presented three productions.

“Complete Works” is the 1980s brainchild of Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, then-college students having fun at Renaissance Pleasure fairs by performing whirlwind versions of Shakespeare plays

Scene from “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” / photo by Jesús E. López Vargas

The show has undergone an almost dizzying number of revisions – so many as to defy any attempt at cataloguing and enumerating them. New Swan’s production is one of the more recent versions known under the title “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (revised) (redone).”

While “Complete Works” is mostly scripted, it gives actors like New Swan’s Abel Garcia, Crystal Kim and Kieran Barry free reign to improvise depending upon the individual energy and flow of each night’s performance.

Long, Singer and Winfield take a wrecking ball to Shakespeare’s entire canon, then give New Swan (or any troupe) complete license to ridicule and elaborate upon their comedic versions of the plays.

Scene from “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” / photo by Jesús E. López Vargas

The show affords its trio of actors the luxury of delivering healthy swaths of actual dialogue from the Bard’s many and various dramas, comedies and histories of the British crown.

Laughs are generated by a combination of bawdy humor, slapstick, wordplay, irony and a parodistic handling of Shakespeare’s plays. “Complete Works” is mostly scripted silliness. The mood is playful and the style is off the cuff.

At New Swan, Garcia, Kim and Barry have just the right self-deprecating demeanors, telling us that they’re performing in the show because “none of us were cast in ‘Julius Caesar’” (true).

Director Eli Simon, New Swan’s founding artistic director, imposes a swift pace upon the show, granting his trio of actors 100 percent freedom to cut loose whenever they please.

Scene from “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” / photo by Jesús E. López Vargas

Reading from a huge, hard-cover tome that’s at least eight inches thick, Garcia relates that the total of some 1,122 characters in Shakespeare’s 37 plays calls for a process of “shrinkage” to be presented in one sitting.

And indeed, the Reduced Shakespeare Company (as Singer, Long and Winfield later called themselves) puts the Bard’s works on a diet. Some of the plays have snippets of scenes devoted to them and some, a few lines of dialogue, while the rest have to settle for only a mere mention of them by title. Along the way, the faux-erudite Garcia delivers scholarly insights into Shakespeare the playwright.

To wit: We get a 12-minute version of “Romeo and Juliet” replete with a swordfight accompanied by the theme song from “Rocky,” followed by the ultra-gory “Titus Andronicus,” parodied as a TV cooking show.

Scene from “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” / photo by Jesús E. López Vargas

Next comes a rap version of the tragic “King Lear” with entertainingly clever lyrics in a bit showcasing the cast’s song-and-dance talents.

Before presenting a mash-up of all 16 of the comedies, the point is made that this is a valid method of performing shows that are essentially alike, causing their plots and characters to be virtually interchangeable.

After being told that the tragedies “are so much funnier than the comedies,” we get “Macbeth” delivered with mangled Scottish brogues, a truncated “Julius Caesar,” and “Hamlet,” the Shakespeare play to which “Complete Works” devotes the most attention.

After the histories are mashed together and staged as a wild football game, Garcia states “36 down, one to go,” noting that as “perhaps the greatest play ever written in the English language,” “Hamlet” deserves to be dealt with in more detail.

Scene from “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” / photo by Jesús E. López Vargas

The “Hamlet” segment is rich with both parody and a semi-earnest discussion and analysis of the play’s characters, structure and poetic language.

Act Two is devoted to this Shakespeare masterpiece, starting with Garcia, Kim and Barry delivering a Freudian analysis of its characters.

We soon get everything from sock puppets to stabbings à la “Psycho” to “Great Dane” puns and “Star Wars”-style swordplay using light sabers.

The entire compressed version of “Hamlet” is then recapped at warp speed and, as the cast finds they’ve completed the show ahead of schedule, repeated a second time – this time, backwards. This final feat imposes incredible physical demands upon the cast, and Simon’s actors are more than up to the challenge.

Scene from “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” / photo by Jesús E. López Vargas

Kim’s uninhibited persona exudes cheerful high energy. Garcia portrays the intellectual outraged at the void of true culture in today’s society. Barry plays the layperson uninformed about Shakespeare, using index cards to relate details of the playwright’s life in the town of “Straight-ford” while comically conflating the facts with characters from “Star Wars.”

Production stage manager Jessie Bender plays a huge role in facilitating the show and its high-speed stage action by providing the accompanying music (by Mike Hooker) and sound effects (by Jeremiah Turner) in real time.

Scene from “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” / photo by Jesús E. López Vargas

The main feature of Andrea Corona’s scenic design is a curtain listing the titles of all of Shakespeare’s plays. Hats off, also, to Ashley Duncan (costumes), Diana Herrera (lighting design) and Michael Polak (fight choreography).

You won’t find much of the glorious language that long ago elevated Shakespeare’s works to the level of high theatrical art. But that’s not why audiences flock to see “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.”

So give yourself a night off from the real thing and enjoy the wit and energy that are the specialties of this “reduced” version of the works of the Bard.

New Swan Shakespeare Festival, Gateway Commons/Gateway Plaza, 4004 Mesa Road, Irvine (University of California, Irvine). Through Sept. 9. Running time (with intermission): Two hours. Tickets: $23-$90. Ticket purchase/information: 949-854-4646, www.newswanshakespeare.com.

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