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Bard to the Bone 

by Michael Bowen

If your British Lit teacher made you count syllables in lines of iambic pentameter - well, this one's for you. That's because The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), with its self-mocking title, represents the revenge of all the kids who were ever bored in English class.

First concocted in 1987 by a trio of Renaissance fair junkies in California - Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield - The Complete Works refracts Shakespeare by way of Monty Python and Fractured Fairy Tales -- and yeah, each of the 37 plays at least gets a mention. In the first act, two guys playing multiple roles and wearing bad wigs perform a speeded-up version of Romeo and Juliet, complete with interpretive dance moves in unison. One of Shakespeare's bloodiest revenge tragedies is done as a Julia Child-style cooking show. The three white boys in the cast will attempt a rap version of Othello. A dozen comedies are condensed into a ridiculous conglomerate plot involving six sets of identical twins, plenty of disguised dukes, and "an inhuman green monster who symbolizes the extreme right wing of the Republican party." Meanwhile, there's a mini-version of the Scottish play (don't you dare say "Mac----") with Scottish accents so thick that Rs are rolling all over the ground. The history plays are done as a football game, with King John about to score before he's poisoned on the 10-yard line, Richard III hurt so badly that he has a limp, and Henry VIII scoring the final touchdown. The second half of The Complete Works is given over to a rapid-fire Hamlet, pausing only to allow portions of the audience to enact Ophelia's ego, superego and id. (You don't want to know.) It's all supreme Shakespearean silliness.

At a recent rehearsal, the three actors -- who use their real-life names, as if the entire wacky proceeding were being improvised -- ran a fairly polished version of Act 1, nearly three weeks before opening night. (Director Wes Deitrick has drilled them on timing, and it shows.)

Ron Ford plays "the scholarly one," who gets to send up pretentious Masterpiece Theater introductions to the works of the Immortal Bard. Asked about his motives for acting in the show, Ford declares that he's "fascinated with Shakespeare" but doing it mostly because "I just like satire."

Paul Villabrille's character is "young and unscholarly - very energetic and out of control." He's the one who finds excuses at every occasion to run out into the audience and pretend-vomit into some unsuspecting spectator's lap. (It's that kind of show.)

Stuart McKenzie plays straight man to the other two - hilariously so at the end of Act 1, when Ford starts chasing Villabrille throughout the auditorium.

So don't audience members need to brush up on their Shakespeare beforehand? "Absolutely not," Deitrick responds. "I think those who have knowledge of the Bard will get 5 percent more jokes than those who don't -- and the other 95 percent is theirs to laugh at."

The Complete Works is an irreverent but educational and kid-pleasing show, but its Aug. 25-Sept. 2 run will miss all the kids still enjoying their summer vacation. As if to make up the gap, director Deitrick plans to bring his 7-year-old daughter to the show. For parents concerned about whether CWWS(a) is appropriate for their kids, he has this answer: "If they watch The Simpsons, they could probably watch this." For example, Deitrick - who brings nearly 30 years of theater experience to this show, mostly in L.A. as playwright, artistic director, producer, director, actor and backstage techie -- has cleaned up the rap song.

But the show doesn't just throw pies in Shakespeare's face. It has some educational value, too. As Deitrick notes, "At points in the script, we have opportunities to show that we do know Shakespeare and can perform it as Shakespeare intended," he says. "And particularly in Act Two with Hamlet, you will see those moments when we pull back the reins and stop the stampede (for a moment or two)."

What gets lost in the rush, thankfully, are all those pious platitudes about the Bard's perfection. In Deitrick's view, the show presents some Shakespeare - and then again, it presents "a bit of misinformation as well. I've approached it as three guys who love Shakespeare [and who] are attempting to give the whole magilla in a single evening of entertainment. It's more about the three guys and their enthusiasm in presenting it to a contemporary audience. The result is we have a wonderful satirical farce that loosely presents some Shakespeare."

Publication date: 08/19/04

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