Every television show or movie you may have loved as a kid or teen has seemingly been rebooted, streamed, and (in many cases) quickly canceled and forgotten in the last five years. Last season Hulu produced a meta-comedy called Reboot that asked: What happens if we actually try to write something new with such hackneyed materials? Can we remake a favorite while creating something fresh and new? (This witty show, too, has been canceled after one season, so we may never know.)
And that brings us to Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] [Again]. The two hours traffic of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) dares to perform 37 plays with only three actors, and it would be a Shakespearean tragedy to miss this side-splitting reboot of the Bard’s greatest hits (and “crappy plays,” too). And, because of the pandemic, we almost did. In March 2020, CSC had just opened the production (with a different cast but still directed by CSC Founding Director Ian Gallanar), and it closed due to COVID-19 a week later. Just like one of those unexpected reunions in Shakespeare’s later romances though, where a statue comes back to life or a lost child finds their parents again after 16 years, the play has been revived, breathed into with fresh ideas and new takes. Directed by Gallanar with warmth and wit, it is a dizzyingly fun and irreverent takedown of the Swan of Avon.
As the title declares, this, too, is a reboot, an updated revision of the 35-year-old frenetic favorite, and the changes work well. This is the first major professional production of the revised script (completed, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, during lockdown) by the original members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company: Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. (CSC previously produced an older version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) in 2011.)
Gone is the cringey Othello-rap battle scene. Instead, CSC newcomer Shaquille Stewart stops his castmate dressed in pool floaties (she Googled “moor” and assumed British swampy landscapes) and just cancels any comedic take on Shakespeare’s problematic tragedy about anti-Black racism. It’s a quick scene, but bold and smart. It’s not canceling Othello, but rather noting that for tougher topics we need open discourse and thoughtfulness, not belly laughs. Some other updated asides and tossed lines that ring true: Macduff sharing that he was untimely ripped from his mother’s womb becomes a chance to share a pro-choice sentiment, and in Stewart’s opening monologue about his love of Shakespeare, he admits that the plays can be racist, sexist, xenophobic, and otherwise exclusionary and cruel. This doesn’t mean this is a fake “woke” farce, but one that only becomes even more inclusive, diverse, and hilarious by stating that there are problems with Shakespeare’s works that we must address — some we can address well through laughter, but others we cannot. Comedy works best when most of the audience can laugh along at most of the jokes, and that means working broadly and not excluding or hurting members of the audience.
So they don’t quite get through Othello, so what? In Act One, they rewrite all of the comedies into one condensed 16-flavors-of-funny sundae. The history plays are reimagined as a football game with the various kings of England trying to get to the endzone with the crown in hand without getting stabbed or poisoned by their rivals. And The Two Noble Kinsmen brings together the best of both worlds: a dusty soporific scholarly lecture and an extended interpretative dance sequence involving Godzilla. But getting through 36 of the plays before intermission almost breaks one castmate when she learns they haven’t yet tackled Hamlet.
It’s seriously funny business performed by an exceptionally talented triumvirate of fools. Stewart opens the play with usual theater-etiquette business and establishes his easy rapport with the audience right away. He’s affable, game, and charismatic at every turn — especially his Californian-surfer Romeo — and is such a natural comedic fit in his CSC debut that I look forward to his next performance on their thrust stage. CSC company member Scott Alan Small plays a bloviating, pre-eminent Shakespearean scholar (emphasis on the “pre,” with an online certificate to prove his falsified creds) given to Freudian readings of everything. The closest we have to a straight man in the cast, he often handles narrator roles but becomes delightfully silly in “Kitchen Nightmares” (the cooking show parody starring Titus Andronicus) and as a kilt-wearing, golf-club swinging Scottish King with a brogue harder to cut through than week-old haggis. But it is CSC company member Kathryne Daniels who steals almost every scene. An extremely gifted comedic talent, Daniels always knows when to wink to the audience; she speeds along at a galloping pace through her lines (her co-parts keep up, but panting at points) and she knows when to hold still for an extended joke. Whether stumbling through a conflation of Shakespeare and Lincoln’s wiki bios, rasping Juliet’s famous lines in a vocal fry in the balcony scene, or becoming a belligerent redneck King Claudius, she is the kind of inspired actress to know that tragic heroines may vomit profusely as a valid character interpretation.
Act Two is devoted solely to Hamlet — including an encore 47-second cut of Shakespeare’s wordiest play, a bawdy puppet show, and even a backward run-through. In an extended audience performance aspect, the audience helps get into Ophelia’s psyche after Hamlet’s cruel dismissal: “Get thee to a nunnery.” Together, the audience embodied Ophelia’s id, ego, and superego, until the invited audience member offered an earth-shattering scream. It’s no surprise by the end of the multiple playful reinterpretations of Hamlet that Daniels’ character wants to perform it again and again.
Sure, a few of the pop culture jokes feel outdated or fall flat. (Who has said an exaggerated “wassup” in greeting in the last 15 years? Why is the Prince from Romeo and Juliet referred to as the “leader formerly known as Prince” wearing the hieroglyph the famed guitarist used for only five years? The joke works better when we drop that reference and just have Prince Esaclius saunter into and out of the scene to classics such as “1999” and “Kiss.”) And all the jokes at George Santos’ expense (he deserves every single one of them) will need to be updated soon, once he’s gone and forgotten. But none of that dulls the fun.
Shakespeare himself was styled the “Upstart Crow” by rival poet Robert Greene, who accused the relatively obscure young writer of “beautif[ying] with our feathers” (i.e., plagiarizing others’ works) to become “the only Shake-scene in the country.” We may not remember much of Greene’s works today, but we do recall this dig at the Bard.
Hamlet, King Lear, all the history plays, the Scottish play, and most of the comedies are all reboots. Whether cribbing from English playwrights (King Leir, anyone? Ur-Hamlet much?), British historian Ralph Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Ireland, and Scotland, or ancient writers such as Plautus, Ovid, and Plutarch, Shakespeare was updating and making a killing at a box office on older works way before Netflix or Hulu commodified your favorite childhood shows.
Shakespeare truly became “the only Shake-scene in the country,” that is, the most well-known and frequently produced playwright in the English language for the last 400 years, and his “words, words, words” (to quote from Hamlet) are so deeply embedded into the very fabric of modern culture that the farcical The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) has been so greatly enjoyed by audiences for so long. Every dog will have his day and this irreverent reboot is having its day right now.
Running Time: Two hours plus one 15-minute intermission.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] [Again] plays through March 5, 2023, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets are $23–$69. Subscriptions and tickets can be purchased by calling 410-244-8570, ordering online, or visiting the Box Office in person. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional. If desired, patrons can also request to be seated in the theater’s social-distance-friendly section, located on the second mezzanine.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] [Again]
By Adam Long, Daniel Singer, Jess Winfield
Scott Alan Small
Holly Gibbs – Understudy, Scott/Kathryne
Teddy Sherron – Understudy, Shaquille
Ian Gallanar – Director
Paul Wissman – Assistant Director
Sarah Curnoles – Production Manager
Alexis E. Davis – Production Stage Manager
Dan O’Brien* – Technical Director & Facilities Manager
Misha Kachman – Set Designer
Kristina Lambdin – Costume Designer
Katie McCreary – Lighting Designer
Nikki Lafaye – Props Designer
Tyrel Brown – Assistant Stage Manager
Dawn Thomas Reidy – Production Associate
Bess Kaye – Intimacy and Fight Choreographer
Ashley Sigmon – Wardrobe Supervisor
Mandy Benedix – COVID Safety Manager
Pam Forton – Senior House Manager