New staging of the famed comedy’s 2011 updated version, directed by Katie Chidester, stars all women – a marked difference from typical all-male casting.
By Eric Marchese
Ever seen all of Shakespeare’s plays in one sitting? How about if they were condensed versions? For that matter, who would be nutso enough to attempt to perform it?
You’re probably way ahead of me, and that’s because you’ve probably already heard of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” Which means you're also familiar with the madcap idea of condensing all 37 of the Bard’s comedies, tragedies and histories into the form of parodies and performing them all in under two hours. This concept sounds like something goofy and off-the-cuff that you’d see at a Renaissance fair. In fact, that’s exactly how the show came into existence. And its persisting popularity led to the show’s creators revising the script after roughly three decades.
Although that version of “…Shakespeare (Abridged)” has been around since 2011, it hasn’t gotten much exposure locally, so it’s exciting to report it’s receiving a four-weekend run at Costa Mesa Playhouse, with an all-woman cast directed by Katie Chidester.
Director Chidester said that unlike the more heavily improvised original, this updated version of the famed show is, in fact, fully scripted. “After seeing a number of professional and amateur productions of their show,” Chidester said writers Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield “went back to revise it, stealing from the best bits and moments people had come up with.”
Though Chidester mentioned that the trio’s new script still includes a preface with “a note encouraging the actors to always keep the references and the jokes relevant and timely, which is exciting because it means that at any given time, audiences could see wildly different productions.”
Long, Singer, and Winfield were founding members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and first performed the earliest versions of “…Shakespeare (Abridged)” in the early 1980s at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Novato, CA.
They took the show to the 1987 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and later brought it to the Criterion Theatre in London. Its nine-year Criterion run makes it London’s longest-running comedy.
Costa Mesa Playhouse describes the play as “an irreverent, fast-paced romp” and “a wild ride that will leave you breathless and helpless with laughter.”
The show opens with a parody of “Romeo and Juliet,” followed by “Titus Andronicus” done as a cooking show and then satirizes “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy and the play widely regarded as his most accomplished drama.
Director Chidester has a great deal of affection for the show’s comedic bent: “I love how ridiculous it is. I love that it is so over the top and has such a variety of comedy. Sometimes the jokes are absurdist, sometimes intellectual for real Shakespeare nerds, bawdy, sight gags, puns, contemporary references. It feels accessible. I think even the most bored audience member will find something they laugh out loud at.”
“The challenge of that, as a director, (is) to keep all those moving parts working together in something cohesive.” She said she’s “striving to find the right balance between the silly and keeping the earnestness of these people just wanting to do justice to these plays they love.”
“For this show, I was specifically looking for energy and openness, the willingness to try things on stage.” In Ana Fujimoto, Hayley Jackson and Sammie Moore, Chidester found what she needed, also pointing out that casting three women runs counter to most productions assigning all three roles to men.
More importantly, Chidester said, “so much of comedy is being willing to keep trying something until it lands. Oftentimes a comedy can be difficult if you have an actor who got a laugh maybe the first day of rehearsal and isn’t willing to give that moment up if it becomes clear down the line of the process it no longer serves the show. You need people whose attitude is ‘the show is the priority,’ and we continue to fine-tune these moments until we find the right combination.”
What if audiences are unfamiliar with Shakespeare? Does that diminish their enjoyment level? “Absolutely not. Even not knowing a single thing about Shakespeare or his plays, you will still laugh at this show.” And if you are a Shakespeare fan, “you’ll get a kick from hearing some famous lines and knowing the wordplay, but you’ll also see a fight scene with golf clubs and hear bad Scottish accents.”
Chidester said that if the experience she and her performers have had is any indication, “this show is relentless” for anyone tackling it. “It’s non-stop moving, running, shouting, climbing, hamming it up, and changing costumes. I have no idea how these actors are doing it – I’m exhausted, and all I do is sit in the audience and yell ‘ok, again!’”
“Ultimately, the script works because you really believe that these characters are desperate to get it right but don’t always know how to best go about it. It’s why you root for them to succeed. And if we make fun of all of it, it feels like one long comedy sketch, and I want to give our audience way more than that.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 38 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged (Revised)’
Location: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton Street, Costa Mesa
Run dates/curtain times: May 13-June 5. Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m., Thursday May 26, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $22 general, $20 students/seniors
(pay what you will for May 13 preview and May 26 performance)
Information: 949-650-5269, costamesaplayhouse.com