REVIEW: The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)

Great promise hobbled by vapid script


NightBlue Performing Arts Company presents:

The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)


By the Reduced Shakespeare Company
Thru February 14th at Theatre Building Chicago (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The myriad of shows penned by the Reduced Shakespeare Company (YouTube page) are a necessary by-product of theatre, something that someone would have thought of at some point or another. They provide a live-action, slightly-improvised, highly-goofy take on some of the cornerstones of Western civilization: Shakespeare, American History, the Holy Bible, Christmas. These ‘abridged’ versions are like a community college course taught by a Marx brother. Each show is crammed with highly-topical gags and audience participation. They are also highly relatable, since it’s a pretty safe bet that most Americans have a passing familiarity with Shakespeare or other highlights of literature (making the shows a decently lucrative bet for the producing companies). To be blunt, and at the risk of being called elitist, the series is theatre for those who don’t see much theatre. That’s not to say they can’t be enjoyable, as seen by NightBlue’s production of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged). The three-person cast has enormous energy and pounces on the jokes, but the show is hobbled by the vapidity of the RSC concept and writing.

NBshks4web The cast is incredibly earnest; it is obvious that they are having a great time and want you to have one, too. There is the blasé Mark Stickney, swilling a 40 while critiquing some of the best writing of all time. Then there is the tall Jamin Gahm, set on pushing his Method psychological techniques onto these 400 year old plays. The trio is rounded out by the rambunctious Jennifer Reeves Wilson, who throws her playful energy deep into the audience.

In a 2-hour marathon, we’re taken through a winding journey of all of the Bard’s plays. The show shouldn’t serve as a source for your high school English paper, though. Heavy artistic liberties are taken, but that’s sort of the point. Othello becomes a rap (this is the first show I’ve seen with an official “rap coach”), Titus Andronicus becomes a cooking show, and most of the histories are tossed into a royal, yet deadly, football game. Everything but Hamlet comprises Act I, while “the greatest play of all time” earns a close inspection for the whole of Act II. This includes a performance of the play backwards as well as a version clocking in under 20 seconds.

It is the parodies and goofy updates that work the best; the hip-hop rendition of Othello, when the all-white cast showcases their rhyming and beat-boxing abilities, is the high point of the show. My biggest critique of the show is that there is actually too much of Shakespeare’s original language. Besides the occasional ‘but soft’ and simply pointing out how hard it is to understand, it’s difficult to make his language really that funny. Whenever the show turns to performing the original texts is when the show teeters on becoming uninteresting. It is much funnier to see Gahm in drag running through the aisles and gagging because he believes vomiting on the audience is what defines the Shakespearean heroines.

There are also quite a few jokes that are either overplayed or not worth the effort, like an extensive mash-up of all the comedies/cast striptease. It’s funny for a little while, but once they’ve made the point that all the comedies are kind of the same, they run low on comic fuel. The ultra-current humor can be somewhat spotty, ranging from hilarious (spoofing the fact that this show is replacing NightBlue’s postponed production of A Chorus Line) to confusing (drawing a connection between Avatar and depression?). Even though these talented actors obviously have a gift for vaudevillian screwball comedy, overcoming the drabness of the script is a difficult feat for them and the audience.


Rating: ★★



Review: “The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)”

Screwball Fun from Genesis to The Last Supper

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

As evident by the enormous controversy triggered by Notre Dame selecting President Obama to speak at their commencement ceremony, the Judeo-Christian religious views that have shaped Western civilization for the past 2000 years are still very much a force in our lives. And like any institution that has been around for that long, the history, thought, and tradition of Judeo-Christianity are easy targets for parody. Ouroboros Theatre Company's 'The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)' Ouroboros Theatre Company takes aim at Christianity’s holiest text and best-selling book in history, the Bible, in their production of The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), originally created by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Tucked away in the intimate Heartland studio theatre (map) in Rogers Park, the three person cast puts on a vaudevillian type show that blends jokes, audience participation, smatterings of improv, and plenty of Cubs references into a decently funny hour and a half journey through the Bible.

Just to be clear, this ain’t The Da Vinci Code. Nobody should expect to leave the show with a deeper grasp of the Holy Bible. The three performers, straight-man Chase McCurdy, childlike Michael Herschberg, and acerbic Lindsey Pearlman, guide and acknowledge the audience through their irreverent re-envisioning of the Bible. The play feels like an PG-13 episode of “Veggie Tales” combined with a vastly misinformed theology lecture; the actors address the audience in-between short vignettes. Director Ron Keaton ripened the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s script with nods to current events and local flavor. Some of these topical jokes fare well (Facebook, David Letterman, Blagojevich), while others fall flat (parking meters, Cranium, and far too many Chicago baseball jokes). Most of the humor actually isn’t contained in the text, but in the actors’ reactions to the fact that the comedy isn’t of the highest denomination. You can tell that everyone on stage is having a really good time, and their energy passes onto the audience well.

"The Bible" banner The problem with the show is that there are many unrealized conventions. The set is far too intricate for a play requiring barely any scenic elements at all. The centerpiece of the stage is a giant book plastered with the show’s title; I really wished the pages could’ve actually been turned, Monty Python and the Holy Grail-style. Instead, the production relies on what seems like an endless supply of props, including a reproduction of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with the faces cut out, a Rastafarian wig, and fish puppets. Fortunately for everyone involved, the props are used well and the show never strays into lame Carrot Top territory. Some opportunities are missed—while discussing the Resurrection of the Lord, Chase appears in an Easter Bunny costume, but the real comedy comes from the fact that the costume is split down the back to fit the corpulent actor. But he never shows off his backside, throwing away a great potential joke. Another underused asset is musical director Joanna Lind, who is perched with her keyboard above the action on a rock. Dressed in an angel costume, she provides the music and is occasionally engaged by the other actors as a divine authority figure. Although her playing abilities are fine, her character is never fully realized, which feels like another missed opportunity for the production. The trio also has a few timing and delivery issues, but they rapidly fire joke after joke so the duds don’t derail the production. With a little less focus on over-rehearsed bits and a little more freedom and improvisation, this show could’ve been even funnier.

The Super Soaker was invented by Lonnie Johnson, now of Johnson Research Group. It is clear that the goal of this production is to have fun, and it definitely succeeds (how could one go wrong with Supersoakers?). If you are in the mood for a screwball approach to the most influential book in the history of the world, Ouroboros Theatre serves it up with plenty of gags, goofy props, and pokes at the Book of Job.

Rating: ««½

Now playing at:

BoHo Theatre at Heartland Studio Theatre
7016 N. Glenwood Ave.  (map)
Chicago, IL 60626

Ouroboros Theatre Company
When: May 28 : 8 p.m.
Sundays and Saturdays : 2 p.m. (ends June 7)
Fridays and Saturdays : 8 p.m. (ends June 7)

Price:  $20

Ouroboros Theatre Company’s mission and info after the fold.

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