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Plays Within a Play Hot

Matthew Barbot
Written by Matthew Barbot     August 01, 2007    
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Plays Within a Play
  • Complete Works of Shakespeare
  • by Daniel Singer, Adam Long, Jess Borgeson
  • City Attic Theatre
  • July 16-29, 2007
Acting 5
Costumes 5
Sets 5
Overall 5
Not many actors can claim to have performed roles in every single play in Shakespeare’s canon. Every so often, however, three more get to join their ranks. Of course, they’re usually cheating via the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s hilarious shortcut, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Since its first performance back in 1987, The Complete Works has enjoyed rave receptions from audiences around the world. Now, with City Attic Theater’s production, three more performers—Jeff Scott Carey, Brian Greer, and Christopher Palazzolo—are able to say they’ve done it all, and they do it wonderfully.

The play itself is a comedic romp through all thirty-seven of the Bard’s dramatic works, beginning with Romeo and Juliet and finishing resoundingly with Hamlet. While the first play is covered in the form of a fast paced overview of key scenes, with the actors interjecting their own commentary or line additions in between Shakespeare’s own words, the representation of other works is less straightforward: Othello, for example, is summarized in a Beastie Boys style rap song, and Titus Andronicus is reimagined as a cooking show, where Chef Titus and his lovely daughter Lavinia demonstrate for the audience how to prepare—what else?—a meat pie. Highlighting the similarities in plot devices Shakespeare used in his comedies, the actors read a scene by scene summary of one comedy play, created by compiling all of Shakespeare’s sixteen. In The Complete Works, there is no fourth wall, with the actors often speaking directly to the audience, and there are a few bits that call for actual audience participation. The play is a parody, but one born out of a deep affection for the work it draws from and a passionate desire to make that work accessible to everyone—a goal and sentiment no doubt shared by all those who choose to perform it.

City Attic certainly seems to take this goal to heart, as the show’s educational side filters down even to the set design: the show is performed on a miniature replica of an Elizabethan stage, with all its parts—trap, upper stage, discovery door, etc.— labeled in large, bold black letters. The small space of the Stella Adler studios lends itself well to this show, as it keeps the audience in the thick of the action, making it easier for the cast to interact with them, and providing the audience with an intimate atmosphere. The lighting and sound is well executed, and the house manager gets to be a character in the show as well.

As with so many shows, however, City Attic’s production hinges on the cast. Shakespeare may not have approved of improvisation (Hamlet speaks out against comedic actors that go off script) but this show’s strength is in the actors’ ability to roll with the punches and draw from the audience. Though it’s a play about Shakespeare’s works, this production is full of pop culture references, one-liners and riffs, some of which are in the script but most seem to have been added by the three-man cast to brilliant effect. The lack of a fourth wall requires actors that are able to think on their feet, and that have as much personality as talent, since so much humor is mined from interaction with members of the audience. (In one example, an audience member who does not participate along with the crowd is made to perform the task all by herself.) The actors, who go by their real names in the show, are all charismatic and very funny, and their considerable talent and knowledge of the material make for a particularly enjoyable production.

City Attic’s impressive production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) does more than justice to the much beloved show. It’s a boisterous jaunt that achieves its goal of making Shakespeare enjoyable to everyone; it will surely please both the uninitiated and the Shakespeare scholar alike, and should be seen by both. It's an imaginative show that shines when coupled with an imaginative cast and creative team, and shouldn’t be missed.

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