Love Your Willy: The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) at WHAT
Thirty-seven plays in under two hours. Are you ready? Take a deep breath, because you’re about to be plunged into an incredibly energetic, frenetic, whirlwind tour of the Bard that will make you, as one of the characters says, truly “love your Willy.”
All the parts are performed by three actors: Stephen Smith Stout, Madeleine Bundy, and—on the night I attended—Paige O’Connor. The stage is relatively sparse, the pace driven, and the actors all superb.
Stout is a master of ceremonies of sorts—he does the pre-show housekeeping speech and then meanders onstage as though it had only just occurred to him to do so. The fourth wall, once broken, remains open throughout the play, including audience participation that’s front and center in the second act.
This play is side-splittingly, uproariously funny, some of it clever highbrow stuff and a whole lot of it slapstick; the actors’ choreography owes a lot to Charlie Chaplin. Director R.J. Tolan has a sense of where to lean in and where to move briskly by, and there’s never a moment when the stories aren’t completely engaging to the audience.
And there’s so much here to engage! From Romeo and Juliet’s “jejeune carnal influences” to the sounds of Danny Kaye’s Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen as an introduction to Hamlet; from ongoing vomiting (you’ll understand when you see it) to a Mary Poppins chest from which dinosaurs and dinghies (and a whole lot of other things) emerge; from Titus Andronicus as a macabre “kitchen tragedy” to the plays about kings neatly encapsulated in a football game—the show never loses momentum.
And it is absolutely for everyone. If you’ve only ever skimmed whatever Shakespeare you didn’t cover in school, you will actually find this a decent introduction to some of his works (in that way, it reminded me of Richard Armour’s wonderful The Classics, Reclassified). If you’ve downloaded any of the plays, “hopped up,” as Stout describes it, “on gigabytes of pirated text,” then you’ll love seeing your beloved characters in an assuredly different light.
Unexpectedly, the playwrights (Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield) allow for productions to bring in local and cultural references, which give the audience “insider” laughter. (Speaking of Shakespeare’s wife, one of the characters turns to the audience to note that no, it’s not that Anne Hathaway; and who but this mob would ever think to bring Emily in Paris to the same stage as Shakespeare?)
All three actors are phenomenal (note that on opening night, Paige O’Conner replaced Lacy Allen), their delight in what they’re doing is infectious. They’re goofy, energetic, and loveable (and definitely should stay well away from sugar), but don’t miss what’s behind the humor: in the moments when they’re actually reciting Shakespeare’s lines, they do so with assurance and depth as well as speed.
None of the wordplay is particularly subtle, from the reference to Othello (“isn’t moor a parking lot for boats?”) to The Tempest (“I am so lonely and pubescent on this island”); but it’s all a great deal of good fun. The contemporary punchlines lighten the mood and blend together to deliver the funniest Shakespeare ever. The actors are spot-on; the direction is just this side of over the top; the costumes are hilarious. Christopher Ostrom’s scenic design is minimal (until it comes to props emerging from the bottomless trunk on stage); it gives the actors space enough for their manic physical humor.
If you’re the sort of person who thinks the Scottish play would be greatly enhanced by the presence and use of golf equipment, then you’re on their wavelength. Ride that wave: with The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), WHAT once again delivers a fabulous and memorable night at the theater.
Photos: Michael and Sue Karchmer
Photos feature Lacy Allen rather than Paige O’Connor.