Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Sam Olecki (left, who plays both Hamlet and Romeo) tangled with Joseph Peach Graves (Polonius, Cladius) in a sword fight.

‘Complete Works of
William Shakespeare’
has highs and lows

Review by John Berger

"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)"

Presented by the Actors Group at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 13 at Yellow Brick Studio. Tickets are $10. Call 591-7999.

Didja know that William Shakespeare committed suicide in Berlin with his mistress, Eva Peron, in 1945? That's just one of the factoids of literary history thrown up for consideration in the Actors Group's hit-and-miss production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."

Director Devon Leigh has taken a calculated risk in reworking a play written for a cast of three men to suit a cast of six that includes four women. Some segments work better than others. Nonstop comedy this is not.

The sharpest and most clearly focused segments utilize the comic talents of the two men. One sketch purports to show the preposterousness of the social mores that prohibited women from the acting profession during Shakespeare's day, and therefore has Joseph Peach Graves and Sam Olecki playing all the characters in an abridged version of "Romeo and Juliet." This inevitably means that Olecki (the shorter of the two) is cast as Romeo, and Graves plays Juliet, and the two performers relate to each other as if they're in an all-boys high school and very uncomfortable about the homoerotic aspects of the situation. It's in the latter context that a line of Romeo's dialogue that includes the words "but love" results in the hapless Olecki being dubbed "Buttlove" by his skittish co-star.

Both performers also get hit in the crotch at least once during the sketch -- an ever-popular piece of juvenile slapstick comedy it would seem, judging by the audience response on opening night. Graves and Olecki give winning comic performances even without going to the crotch for a cheap laugh, and, because "Romeo & Juliet" follows several slow introductory sketches featuring other cast members, the excellent comic interplay between them is crucial in establishing that this highly touted spoof of Shakespeare does have some comic content.

Graves and Olecki also excel in Act 2 when they share the stage with Elizabeth Anne Wenzel for a three-way deconstruction of "Hamlet." Once again the men play characters of both sexes; Graves is especially good at making quick costume changes as he plays both Claudius and Gertrude. Graves and Olecki get effective support from Wenzel -- particularly when the trio repeats a version of "Hamlet" three times at ever more frenetic speed, then do it backward!

Unfortunately, the smoothly flowing action comes to a halt when the rest of the cast barges out on stage and presses the audience into examining Ophelia's mental state at the moment Hamlet told her to go to a nunnery. A woman is pulled out of the audience and replaces Wenzel as Ophelia on stage; another audience member is required to run back and forth across the stage; and everybody else must either wave their hands in the air or yell something on cue. The young woman who was dragged up on opening night to play Ophelia and scream on cue was a good sport and a convincing screamer.

Other than that, the whole episode took far too long to set up and wasn't worth the minimal comic payoff. It took the actors a good bit of energy to regain their comic momentum when it was over.

"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" stars from left, Cecilia Lamb, Sam Olecki, director Devon Leigh, Elisabeth Wenzel, Euphrosyne Rushforth, Joseph Peach Graves and Stephanie Kuroda.

Audience participation is employed elsewhere. Any man who lives for the opportunity to have a woman sit on his lap should go early, grab a seat in the front row. (A male cast member or two also gets up close and very personal with the audience, and someone else down front can expect to have their seat commandeered by the usurper King of Denmark.) The back row is the place for those who prefer not to be sat on or crawled over.

Shakespeare's plays tracing the decline of the Plantagents, the internecine wars between Lancaster and York, and the final victory of the Tudors, are covered in a single sketch in which the crown is passed and fumbled like a football before Henry VII finally takes it into the end zone. This is one of the segments that benefits from Leigh's decision to expand the cast.

The comedies are likewise dispensed with in short order because, as the stuffy commentator (Euphrosyne V.E. "Frosty" Rushforth) points out, Shakespeare seems to have used the same basic ideas -- mistaken identity, cross-dressing, plays-within-plays and improbable slapdash endings -- in all of them.

Two other sketches worth seeing are "Othello" performed as rap and "The Titus Andronicus Cooking Show," in which Titus (Graves) and his daughter, Lavinia (Cecilia Lam), demonstrate the proper way of preparing and serving the head of a man who raped and mutilated her. "Othello" as rap is no longer a new idea, but the cast does it well. The cooking-show concept is dark but, thanks to the comic skill of Graves and Lam, funny in a perverse way.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of this version of playwrights Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield's work seems labored. There's too much energy expended in Trying to Be Very Very Very Funny, and perhaps not enough faith in the inherent entertainment value of comedy, parody and satire. There is also too much time spent on the contrived premise that various actors are suddenly "unwilling" to perform and must be forced to continue -- a premise that gets stale fast.

Maybe the problem is in the reworking of some of the playwrights' original ideas. Maybe "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" isn't as fast and clever as "The Complete History of America (Abridged)," which Long wrote with two other partners. Whatever the reason may be, this look at Shakespeare falls short of reaching the hilarity level achieved by Manoa Valley Theatre's staging of "The Complete History of America (Abridged)" in 2001.

Honolulu Theatre for Youth's 1996 presentation of an abridged version of "The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)" as a one-act production for "ages 12 and up" was likewise faster and contained more genuine laughs per minute. Perhaps TAG's production would have worked better as a long one-act comedy as well.

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