Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012

The Rep’s Take On Reduced Shakespeare

A Fun Show for those wh haven’t already seen it and those who might be a little obsessed with it.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of William Shakesepare (Abridged) is roughly 25 years of age in 2012.  The theatre/sketch comedy hybrid out of California has become a huge hit all over the world and continues to be produced various places. The Milwaukee Rep just opened a production of the show that runs through mid-March at the Stackner Cabaret.

This is my third time seeing a production of the show, which has also had recent stagings with Soulstice Theatre and The World’s Stage. The idea is that a group of actors have decided to perform an “unprecedented,” feat of  covering all of Shakespeare’s works in the span of a single show of roughly 90 minutes. Cute, right? And under the right circumstances it can also be charming.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production is a solidly competent staging of the show that should be pretty satisfying to anyone who hasn’t already seen that show and anyone fanatical enough about RSC stuff to want to see as many stagings of the show as possible. Speaking as someone who isn’t exactly in love with the material, Seeing it a third time in a third different production is probably at least one time too many. In making a hybrid between theatrical stage comedy and sketch comedy, the piece only kind of satisfies as either, but it’s a lot of fun the first time around regardless of who is producing it.

The Milwaukee Rep version has Rep resident actor Gerard Neugent running through Shakespeare’s works with a couple of regional actors . . . looks like they’re guys from Chicago. The set is made to look like somebody’s parents’ kitchen…okay, fine . . . that’s cute, but these are professional actors pretending to be slackers and that doesn’t exactly work with these guys. It’s got kind of a clever forced informality about it, but that forced informality would’ve worked a lot better with really, really talented non-Equity guys half the ages of these guys.

Various things have been updated. The original script has one of the guys (in this case relatively tall Chicagoan Joe Dempsey)  reading some biographical material on Shakespeare from a series of index cards that flutter to the floor. He picks them up trying to salvage the biographical info, mixing it up with that of Hitler. Kind of a weak joke that relies a bit too much on the unexpected . . . but here, instead of cue cards, Dempsey’s reading the biographical info off an “iNook.” The joke doesn’t quite work the same without index cards, but it’s a cute switch . . . Dempsey does a pretty good job of bringing the rest of the material to the stage, appearing quite often in drag. Appearing about as often in drag? Somewhat shorter Chicagoan Ernie Gonzales who seems a bit more in form as a sketch comedy artist than the other two guys here . . . and I don’t think I mean that in a good way. (Or maybe I do, I don’t know.) That’s the problem with this hybrid, though . . . it has to ride the edge between sketch comedy and more traditional stage comedy and that’s actually a very, very difficult edge to tread. The cast does a pretty good job of carrying it off, though.

Somewhere near the conceptual center of this things is Gerard Neugent—if only because he’s more familiar to local audiences than the other two guys. He has a pretty solid sense of comedy as seen in previous productions with the Rep and . . . First Stage, actually. Bringing sort of a modulated comic madness to the stage as he does here, his performance seems  reminiscent of his performance as Cat In The Hat in their production of Seussical. I don’t know, though . . . I guess I was looking for more of an ensemble feel than I got here and Neugent’s work would’ve been that much better with more of an integrated ensemble of actors who have more experience working together. Or maybe it just felt like that might’ve been what was missing. It was hard to tell. Neugent’s funny here, but even the more clever bits (invoking the name of ”Jimmy DeVita” before trying to undertake a performance of the To Be Or Not To Be speech for example) feel kind of flat. It’s fun…it’s just missing something . . . and for me it’s missing a LOT of something, but if you’ve never seen an RSC-written show, this is as good as any. In the right frame of mind, it’s reasonably clever comedy well worth the ticket price.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) runs through March 11th at the Stackner Cabaret. For ticket reservations, call 414-224-9490 or visit the Rep online.

 

 

And on a personal note--It's interesting . . . seeing this production makes me respect what In Tandem did with its production of the RSC-written ALL THE GREAT BOOKS a while back. Director Chris Flieller took a very similar comic show and managed to craft a much more inspired production of ALL THE GREAT BOOKS than the Rep manages here. That show has a very similar set-up that aspires to the exact same kind of comedy. Flieller and a cast exactly as talented as the three here put together a far more entertaining show. And bringing this up about a show that I saw THREE YEARS AGO is . . . well it's pretty silly. I know this. But having seen this show, I can now recommend with even more conviction a show that closed a few years ago.

 


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