Actors have a ball in abbreviated Bard at American Shakespeare Center

'The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] (Again)' is a fun 130 minutes — even if it could have been 97.

In The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] (Again), three intrepid actors attempt to perform the Bard’s 37 plays in 97 minutes. American Shakespeare Center’s latest production does it in 130. Time moves slower in Virginia, sure, but must it be that slow?

Faster is funnier, and Complete Works is a fast-paced, schticky script that includes a unique stipulation. As described by one of its three playwrights in American Theatre Magazine, the actors in each production “are not just allowed to alter the playwrights’ original text — they are commanded to.”

Matt Radford Davies and Benjamin Reed in ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] (Again).’ Photo by Alaina Smith.
First devised by Daniel Singer, Jess Winfield, and Adam Long in 1987, The Complete Works can become more of a living play with this gracious command. It enables the text to change and evolve with each production — the words are not a static, Shakespearean dictate that commands actors to be word-perfect. Instead, there is an expansiveness that encourages productions to diversify the cast, split the roles among more than three people, play it with their own names, and allow actors to improvise as “exaggerated versions of themselves to bring their own quirks, talents, and vulnerabilities to the forefront.”

This edict seemed to be gospel to the exceptional Natasia Reinhardt, who played her track with believable and true earnestness. She brought a seriousness to her role that made it all the funnier to watch her as a leather-jacketed Hamlet and a Buddy Valastro–inspired Titus Andronicus hosting a baking show.

Perhaps this playing of oneself would be easier to do under the guidance of a director, but this production was ensemble-directed, as actors might have done during Shakespeare’s time. In other words, there was no single director, so all decisions on design and staging were theoretically made by the three actors as a team — ASC veterans Natasia Reinhardt, Matt Radford Davies, and Benjamin Reed.

Clockwise from top left: Natasia Reinhardt; Benjamin Reed; Natasia Reinhardt; Benjamin Reed and Matt Radford Davies in ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] (Again).’ Photos by Alaina Smith.
As a result of this choice, the production felt like a mishmash of ideas, disjointed and without a unifying vision. An ensemble-directed show means there’s no bird’s eye view of a scene — no one to watch and feel the slowness, the comedic timing, or the distasteful joke from the audience’s perspective. It also means you have to critique the person with whom you are sharing a scene — something that can be done easily with the right coworkers but can prove challenging with the wrong ones.

The Complete Works also demands excellent improvisational skills from its actors — it’s a text that favors comedians over the classically trained, and this production felt like watching the three best students in your Shakespeare class try stand-up for the first time, and often enough, they do it successfully. As the play has a high jokes-per-minute count, it’s bound to make audiences laugh; if one joke falls flat, another is sure to follow. The show is at its best when not focused on joke after joke and instead committing to longer comedic bits, such as the lively interactive portion in which one lucky member of the audience gets to play Ophelia as the rest of the crowd tries to throttle her. Even if the play could have been more cohesive or comedic, the actors clearly have a ball racing around the stage in silly costumes, performing Hamlet backward. It’s a fun 130 minutes — even if it could have been 97.

Running Time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] (Again) plays through June 4, 2023, at American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (540) 851-3400, or purchase them online.

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required.

Cast credits for The Complete Works of Shakespeare… are online here.

COVID Safety: American Shakespeare Center strongly encourages patrons to mask when possible. ASC’s complete COVID-19 Safety Visitor’s Guide is here.

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KJ Moran Velz
KJ Moran Velz is a New England–grown playwright, performer, and educator now based in Alexandria, Virginia. Her work has been performed at the Kennedy Center, Imagination Stage, Flying V, Rorschach Theatre, Adventure Theatre MTC, and Theater Alliance. She currently serves as Director of After School Programming at Educational Theatre Company, an organization that offers process-driven theater arts programming for students ages 3–103 in Northern Virginia. She studied Spanish and Theater and Performance Studies at Georgetown University, where she first fell in love with playwriting and her wife, director Aria Velz. When not in a theater, she enjoys spending time at home with her wife, dog, and two silly cats.


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