Theater & Arts

‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ works as a funny Woodward closer

Kia Vassiliades, Renee Newlove and Samantha Hyde appear in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).”
Kia Vassiliades, Renee Newlove and Samantha Hyde appear in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” Special to The Bee

I’m pretty sure they didn’t have Nike knee pads in Shakespeare’s time. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” a resilient little romp that has been riffing off the Bard since 1987, isn’t so much a comic distillation of his works as a wry wink at his place in contemporary pop culture. For better or worse, Western culture has proclaimed Shakespeare as the be-all and end-all of creative genius, which has given us what you might call a collective osmosis of his works in our society. You might have screwed your eyes shut and hummed “nah nah nah nah” during your high-school English unit on “Hamlet,” but even you probably know that Ophelia doesn’t know how to swim.

With this funny, crowd-pleasing piece of programming, Woodward Shakespeare Festival offers a nicely acted and well-directed production to close out the season.

One key to the continued success of “Complete Works” is the ability of new productions to update the material. Thus, stuck within the silliness of, say, staging “Titus Andronicus” as a Julia Child-inspired cooking show, or all the history plays presented as a football game, we get hot-off-the-press references to Netflix and “Game of Thrones.”

Another thing that keeps the show fresh in this production is director Aaron Spjute’s gender-reverse casting. Written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, the show denotes three characters (Adam, Daniel and Jess), but typically actors use their real names. In the Woodward production, two three-person casts alternate performances.

On opening night I saw Samantha Hyde, Kia Vassiliades and Renee Newlove, who in a complicated schedule over the remainder of the run perform Sept. 4, 11 and 18. Donna Halliburton, Katie Eugene and Broderic Beard perform Sept. 3, 5, 10, 12, 17 and 19. (Originally, however, all six actors in the two casts were women, with Beard filling in after one woman dropped out.)

Having women play roles originally conceived as men gives the play some nice “layers” in terms of the script’s sexual innuendo and stereotypes, especially when errant falsies are flung about the stage. Shakespeare was a big fan of cross-dressing, after all. (Then again, it should be noted this is the kind of show in which one character declares, “Layers make it sucky.”)

Spjute stages some very funny moments (including an extended interlude of audience participation) helped by the boisterous cast. Watching Vassiliades cavort and throw tantrums on Kayla M. Weber’s cleverly designed stage (basically a unit piece upon which every Shakespearean title is inscribed) is a hoot.

One of my favorite moments: in the spoof of “Romeo and Juliet” when a prone Vassiliades spins herself stage right and doesn’t stop, causing Hyde’s Juliet to quip, “My nurse just rolled off the stage.”

When I’ve seen “Complete Works” over the years I’ve always gotten a little antsy at the opening, which drags on too long setting up the concept. I want to leap sooner into the real fun of the show – the Shakespearean spoofs. Some of the exposition about the cast could have been worked into the narrative as the goofiness progresses.

I still felt that way to an extent with this production, but to a lesser degree, thanks to the cast’s considerable comic talents, which are employed in everything from a 10-second nod to “Julius Caesar” to an entire second act devoted to an extended spoof of “Hamlet.” Physical comedy is key, and for that I’m sure Shakespeare would approve. Those knee pads come in handy.

‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)’

Theater review

  • 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Sept. 19
  • Festival Stage, Woodward Park.
  • www.woodwardshakespeare.org, 559-927-3485.
  • Free, but $10 reserved seats available; park’s car entrance fee applies
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