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Free Willy 

Shakespeare's stage treasures are affectionately mocked at Weathervane.

It's no news flash that we're living in a CliffsNotes world, where devilishly complex subjects are being trimmed, squeezed, and processed so that approved viewpoints can be chugged down like a strawberry Slurpie. That's why Fox News would have you believe there are only two acceptable opinions about the Iraq war: You either love everything President Bush does, or you hate America. Simple, isn't it?

Now, if Fox News were presenting all of Shakespeare's theatrical works in less than two hours, we'd get full visuals of all the killings, gropings, spittle, and vomit, with type crawls tracking the numbers of dead and mutilated. But they'd offer little of the wordplay and none of the fun. On the other hand, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), now at the Weathervane Playhouse in Akron, is a brash and bawdy blast. Written by Jess Borgeson, Adam Long, and Daniel Singer, this capsulized send-up of the Bard's entire stage oeuvre is a shameless, slapstick track meet that will do virtually anything for a laff.

Not all of Will's plays are treated equally in this manic exercise, since his 16 comedies are bunched into one ungainly mini-production, and the historical plays are performed en masse as a fractured football game. Half of the first act is taken up with a ludicrous retelling of Romeo and Juliet, with the second act devoted entirely to Hamlet, complete with the audience participating as various compartments of Ophelia's psyche. Throughout the proceedings, the actors talk directly to the patrons as often as they occupy their mangled characters. This creates a we're-all-in-this-together atmosphere that director John Fagan plays on from the very beginning. And he fills the stage with so many leaps, mad dashes, stage business, and flying props of all sorts that it's hard to believe you're not watching a cast of 15 people.

Weathervane has enlisted three young men to handle this frenzied affair, and while they are tireless and eager, their lack of depth and discipline as performers keep Abridged from scaling the comic heights. Scott Shriner is ruefully funny as the cheerful single-amputee chef when Titus Andronicus is reimagined as a cooking show, but he relies too much on his plastic news-anchor smile. The animated Mike Kaschak, kicking it superbly in the Othello-as-rap-song parody, could take more risks and use his bulk more dangerously. Most of the clumsily bewigged female characters are played with an ultimately irritating screech by Sean Derry, although he makes the best contact with the audience in the production's many non-Shakespearean moments.

This motley parade of dramas and comedies leads to a finale in which the actors present increasingly accelerated versions of Hamlet, topped off with that play performed, yes, backwards. Despite their best efforts, the players' inexact timing undermines what should be a hysterical and hyperventilated denouement. But although the play ends with less of a bang than a whimper, it's a pretty amusing whimper.

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