Reviewed by David L. Schriber
The thought of combining 37 Shakespearean plays into a single two-hour farce was too good to pass up, so we took a drive up Route 12 to the Chenango River Theatre (CRT) in Greene to take in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” Written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield; premiered in 1987 and performed subsequently in London and off-Broadway, the spoof encourages improvisation, adaptation to local culture and interaction with the audience.
This version, while not exactly belly-laughing slapstick comedy to the frenetic level of Mel Brooks or Robin Williams, definitely had a certain offbeat “Monty Python-meets-Reader’s Digest Condensed Books” character to it. Detailed knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays was not really necessary to appreciate the humor of themes such as “The Real Housewives of Verona,” a compilation of Will’s 12 comedies.
First, a word about the Chenango River Theatre itself. This was our first experience there, and, while the ticket ordering process was a little odd (I don’t leave credit card information on answering machines, even if they are “secure”), the staff was accommodating enough when you got through to a RLP (real live person). There are just 99 seats in the theater, assigned in the order of purchase. We must have been first at the virtual box office for our day, because we were seated in the center of the front row. I was a little apprehensive when I overheard another patron comment that the first row tends to “get wet,” fearing something along the lines of Gallagher. But despite repeated drownings of Ophelia, we remained dry. The theater is quite a lovely community venue, with real (as in upholstered and comfy) theater seats. Raised rows prevent views being blocked by tall people in front, and even the outside seats have a good view.
An informal lounge area provides intermission seating for snacks. The lounge was adorned with nine watercolor paintings by Austrian-born Sabine Krummel. Krummel, a second-career artist who resides in Chenango Bridge, paints large, vibrantly colored florals a bit reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe, but with a more posterized effect and more vivid color. Krummel’s art will exhibit at CRT through June 17; it also will be displayed Sept. 18 at Windsor’s Window on the Arts.
Now, the play: Portraying 75 characters was the three-man quick-change team of Drew Kahl, Sean Marrinan and Jack Harris. They explained that their goal was to enhance appreciation of the Bard of Avon’s works until one finds a Complete Works of William Shakespeare in every hotel room. This said, Harris sat down like Alastair Cooke to explain the work as Mouret’s Rondeau (a.k.a. the Masterpiece Theater theme) played in the background.
In Elizabethan times, women were forbidden by law from performing on stage, so women’s parts were played by teenage boys. Marrinan preserved this old tradition, portraying all the females, especially the giddy, ditsy or disturbed ones. He did make a rather fetching (albeit mustachioed and goateed) floozy. Juliet resembled a Valley Girl, with Venetian blind shades (actually she was from Verona, not Venice … oh sorry, I’m getting carried away with the shtick here).
Marrinan’s next appearance was as the Moor of Venice, whom he portrayed as a pirate (moor … boat … pirate). The trio did a Cliff Notes summary in rap. The trio telescoped Shakespeare’s 10 historical plays into one, acted out as a slow-motion football game in which the crown was the football.
Following intermission, Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (a.k.a. the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) dramatically opened the “greatest play of all time,” entitled “Omelet the Cheese Danish” (Hamlet). Replete with non sequitors such as the ghost of Hamlet’s father speaking with a “ ‘Joisy” accent and music from Psycho playing as Hamlet stabs Polonius behind the shower curtain “tapestry,” this half of the show really got the audience involved. Ladies in the front row nervously declined the invitation to play Ophelia until the last lady on the end was impressed into service. Her scream following Hamlet’s outburst to “Get thee to a nunnery” was deemed needing dramatic improvement, so the audience was turned into a theater workshop, divided into several sections, each with something different to do/say, all in cacophonous chorus. At the climax, all fell silent, and “Ophelia” let out a convincingly long and blood‑curdling scream deserving of the spontaneous applause she received!
Having taken a good portion of time with Hamlet, the company of Kahl, Marrinan and Harris showed they could do it much faster, summarizing the whole play in 60 seconds, then doing it backwards!
IF YOU GO: “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” plays through Thursdays through Sundays through June 27 at the Chenango River Theatre, 991 State Route 12, three miles south of Greene. Tickets: Call 656-TIXX (656-8499). Season information: www.chenangorivertheatre.org.