By John Dwyer
Old school journalism rightly tells us to address the “Five Ws — the questions of who, what, where, when, and why. These are the tenets not only of journalism, but also of rhetoric and ethics. I am noting this because of the extraordinary way in which three of those “Ws” pop out in this show, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at Town and Country Players, separates itself from other shows that I have seen this season.
First, the “What.” Within two hours, including intermission, the audience is presented with the entire Shakespeare oeuvre. Shakespeare is recognized as the greatest playwright of all time. If you Google “best playwright” or “best play,” the number one spot on almost every list is Shakespeare and “Hamlet.” “Hamlet,” incidentally, is Shakespeare’s longest play and normally clocks in at about four hours. Just imagine the Herculean task of performing 38 of his plays within two hours. This includes the 37 plays solely by the Bard, plus “The Two Noble Kinsman,” by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, and the sonnets. How is this doable?
It is made possible due to the comedic vision of writers Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, who brilliantly condensed it all with 85 percent scripted brilliance and a whopping dollop of 15 percent improv. It’s Shakespeare meeting Monty Python, along with audience participation, and it’s a bloody good time. Ten-year-old kids were yucking it up alongside their grandparents. It’s Cliff Notes on steroids seen through a funhouse mirror.
The acting and improv in this show are uproariously sublime. This is totally unexpected, welcomed and embraced by an entranced audience. The actors are at the top of their game. This totally perfect ensemble is comprised of Brian Kelly, Michael Schiumo and the aforementioned Kevin Palardy. They play multiple characters. In Hamlet, for example, Brian is Laertes, Michael is Hamlet and Kevin is Ophelia. Switching at a second’s notice to another character is juggling at the highest level. The snap, crackle, pop of brain synapses working at such a high intensity is constant. And it works.
Two of the highlights of the show are an entire modern-day rap with beat box about “Othello,” and doing the entire show of “Hamlet” in less than a minute backwards. There is also a wonderful animated video that is a preamble to the show starring Will Shakespeare. This production oozes creativity.
Third, the “Where.” This is important. If you think “Oh, I can catch this later at some other venue,” I would think again. When you stage a play, the venue can be as important as anything else. Not only is this an incredible production, but it could not be better because of the perfect setup. This show should be done ideally surrounded by audience on two or three sides. I have seen it done with a proscenium arched stage that is several feet above an audience on one side. It feels awkward. Why?
Shakespeare constructed his plays inside the confines of certain physical limitations that were present.The physical separation of a proscenium stage never existed in Shakespeare’s day. The Globe Theater’s stage was a thrust stage that was open on three sides and elevated. Groundlings were hanging off the edges of it. Soliloquies were often performed to the faces of said groundlings. Shows were performed in the afternoon and only on good weather days, as there was no artificial light. The audience was always seen by the actors. House lights were never down, as they had not been invented yet.
When a show, such as this, is created and audience participation is involved, nothing could be more perfect than to have the stage on the same level as the first row of seats, where actors can go up the middle aisle of the house to exit, enter or interact with the audience. The opportunities for engagement are boundless.
Certain stages are better for Shakespeare. Certain stages are better for improv. This stage is perfect for both, and I would not miss this show, in part because it won’t be staged as well in most other venues.
The additional questions are of “Why,” “When” and “How.”
Why did Town and Country Players pick this show? Because they knew that there was the perfect storm of a great director in Sheldon Bruce Zeff, coupled with the perfect script about a perfect subject with a perfect cast on a perfect stage.
Or, if the question is “Why should the audience come?” Beside all the reasons already given, this is the show that can bring Shakespeare to the most disinterested blue-collar worker and make them laugh. It is Marx Brothers crazy. It is in the style of Benny Hill or Monty Python, and that is the sugar that makes the medicine go down. You will learn! How wonderful is that? Beyond the laughter, you will learn many things that you never knew about the Bard of Avon while busting a gut laughing.
When? The show goes until Sept.14. How, or how much? Tickets are available online. Purchase them anon. You have less than a fortnight. After all, “The play’s the thing.”
Town and Country Players is located at 4158 York Road (Route 263) in Buckingham Township.