I did not quite know what to expect when I sat down at the Atlanta’s New American Shakespeare Tavern for their production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). How could anyone condense all of the great plays (and sonnets) of Shakespeare into a two-hour performance, and with only three actors!
What I experienced in the next two hours was one of the more enjoyable performances I have seen in a long time. The show is not a formal staging of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays but rather more of a Shakespearean themed sketch comedy show full of audience participation, topical humor, and lots of silly string.
This performance is perfect for those who have not read Shakespeare since high school and are looking to get reacquainted with the Bard without having to pick up a book. For avid Shakespeare readers, this performance serves as a refreshing break from the sometimes dense reading of the tragedy and history plays. It also contains plenty of Shakespearean “easter eggs” that will make Shakespeare aficionados smile and reward them for their scholarship.
The comedic chops of actors Adam King, Vinnie Mascola, and Charlie T. Thomas are in full display in this fast-paced show. Their delivery and comedic timing comes across as effortless although it is clear that such could not be achieved without intense preparation and rehearsal.
The first 60 minutes starts with reenactments of Romeo and Juliet (this version of the romance contains references to The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, Dawson’s Creek, and Star Wars), a rap version of Othello (in the spirit of the show Hamilton), and Titus Andronicus (done as a cooking show). The performance then quickly summarizes all of the comedies in one scene before literally tackling all of the history plays in the form of a football game between competing kings.
The performance focuses its last hour on Hamlet. The action on the stage slows just a bit to allow the audience to explore the different motivations and layers of the characters (at one point, different sections of the audience get to play different aspects of Ophelia’s psyche) and to also explore the true beauty of Shakespeare’s language. The onstage antics halt for a moment while Charlie Thomas recites lines from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. It is in this moment that the audience is reminded why they showed up to a performance celebrating Shakespeare’s works. With nothing other than the words of the script, Thomas mesmerizes the audience with the quality and beauty of Shakespeare’s language. For all of the jokes, pranks, and physical comedy of the first part of the performance, it is these bare lines of text that inspire the most attention from the audience and will undoubtedly encourage those who have only experienced Shakespeare as assigned reading to give him a fresh look.
Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern is the perfect venue for this type of performance. This show above all others is enhanced by the ability of the audience to eat and drink before, and during, the performance. The casual and relaxed atmosphere encourages the participation of the audience and allows both the audience and the actors to not take themselves too seriously.
The traditionally Spartan set design of the Tavern encourages the audience to focus on the performances of the actors, while the audience’s close proximity to the stage makes it easy for the actors and audience to interact with, and laugh at, one another. Although the sets are not an important part of the show, the actors make full use of the Tavern’s stage and there is frequently action going on simultaneously on multiple parts of the stage. The costumes are designed to invoke the feeling that this whole show was thrown together in someone’s garage with all of the actors are wearing nondescript black sweatpants and white shirts. When they need to change genders or draw swords, they pull out wigs and weapons that you’d typically find in a pop-up Halloween costume shop. Lighting also plays an important role in the performance, with the actors frequently speaking directly to the spotlight operator to help them get through their performances.
Oftentimes Shakespeare can be intimidating to the casual reader and viewer. Any performance that helps to show to more people the joy, beauty, and humor within Shakespeare’s works is a performance worthy of the Bard himself. Whether you consider yourself a scholar of Shakespeare or are just looking for a fun night of great comedy, this fun performance from the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern will not disappoint.