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Shake & Bake 

Shakespeare's classics are well roasted at Playhouse Square.

Madly mirthful: Shakespeare would guffaw in his - grave.
  • Madly mirthful: Shakespeare would guffaw in his grave.
There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who love Shakespeare and those who can't figure out what the hell his characters are talking about. Let's face it, his plays would be a lot more popular among common folk if he had written them to last maybe about three minutes each. At that length, even those with the most addled attention spans could hang in there and pop for a little culture, painlessly. The next best solution is to check out The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), now at the Great Lakes Theater Festival.

Covering (sort of) 37 of the Bard's plays in about two hours, it figures out to three minutes each -- if they were performed in order. However, there's nothing orderly about this free-for-all written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. Careening wildly from a hip-hop Othello to Titus Andronicus performed as a cooking show, and performing all of Will's comedies as a single commingled farce, this is Shakespeare on crystal meth. And while director Charles Fee doesn't help his performers quite reach the manic pace for which the piece yearns, there are buckets of laughs, from broad and naughty physical humor to sly puns and wordplay.

Since The Complete Works is always rewritten to some extent by each new production company, with added local references and timely asides taken from culture and politics, the experience is never the same twice. Anachronisms abound, including allusions to leaping LeBron and a couple swipes at the feckless Bush administration and the recent Democratic Tribute to the Vietnam War -- er, the National Convention. But the centerpiece is Shakespeare's body of work, represented at the start by a gigantic volume sitting on a pedestal, where a rosin bag hangs to aid the grip of anyone attempting to heft it.

That's the only heavy lifting required, however, as precious few of Shakespeare's real lines are intoned, exchanged as they are for raucous infighting among the three actors, snatches of familiar tunes (including the theme song from The Love Boat), and stuffed dummies flying through the air. The fun begins early, with each of the actors mingling with the audience in their introductory roles as a red-jacketed theater volunteer, a boorish audience member in full Cleveland Indians drag, and a supposed Shakespeare expert. Although it's a clever idea, the gag is played out too long, and the laughs become perfunctory.

Once the actual script begins, the comedy indulges in plenty of Three Stooges simplemindedness ("Call me but love!" pleads one in the throes of poetic amour. "Okay, Butt-love," agrees another.) Later on, a character complains, "You shat in my stew!" and when his comrade denies the poopy prank, the victim responds, "Yes you did, and I had to throw half of it away!" In one of the show's manically inspired conceits, they perform all the historical plays as a Monday Night Football scenario, with the leadership of European nations literally being chucked from one king to another as they run pass routes across the stage. Interspersed with all this classical cacophony are nonstop modern allusions touching on moments from The Matrix, Jaws, Psycho, Dr. Phil, and The Spy Who Shagged Me. There's only one island of calm: a serious rendering of the "What a piece of work is man" speech from Hamlet, given an interpretation free of irony and scatological additions.

Among this strap-on-codpiece trio, Lynn Robert Berg is the funniest-looking performer, his bald head gleaming as he sprouts up in countless roles, some of which last only a few nanoseconds, such as Dieter, the host of Saturday Night Live's Sprockets skit. The only bearded actor, M.A. Taylor, shoulders most of the cross-dressed parts, and his mutiny at the end of act one (he doesn't want to do Hamlet again) precipitates the intermission. Slim and chipper Jeffrey C. Hawkins contributes a number of telling celebrity impressions, and his backwards rendition of the mournful Dane is done so perfectly it seems like someone hit the rewind button on a videotape.

Director Fee must be praised for adding a ton of comic invention to the proceedings and drawing some inspired bits out of his actors. But his overall pacing feels a bit tentative. This is especially noticeable toward the conclusion, when Hamlet is done in real time, then double-time, then triple-time, and then in reverse. By the end of that sequence, the performers should be drenched in hyperventilated sweat and the audience helpless with laughter, but this production never reaches that level of exhilarated exhaustion.

Then again, how many chances do you have to become part of Ophelia's psyche, as the entire audience is instructed to act out her id, ego, and superego? And you might even go home with one of the foam footballs they throw into the audience. Try getting that at your average Shakespeare performance.

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