“They don’t do Shakespeare here anymore,” said actor M.A. Taylor while explaining rules to the audience regarding cell phones and photography. It was a joke. But it was also an uncomfortable truth. For the first time in the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival’s 38 seasons they wouldn’t be performing a work by the Bard.
Blame it on the economy. Attendance is down, corporate sponsorships are down, and the cost of producing a play is cheaper when you only have three actors instead of the full-throated cast required by most Shakespearian plays. But sometimes triumphs can come from tragedies, and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) might just be the most enjoyable production in the festival’s history.
The premise for the performance is that three actors (Taylor, along with Lynn Robert Berg and Jeffrey C. Hawkins) attempt to perform all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, along with his sonnets, within two hours. The result is a loving parody filled with slapstick, cross dressing, double entendres and numerous scenes of vomiting.
The play begins with a send-up of Romeo and Juliet, followed quickly by Titus Adronicus done as a Julia Child cooking show, then Othello summarized as a Beastie Boys-esque rap song. The comedies are thrown together into one play since they “all recycle the same plot anyway.” The histories become a satire of an NFL broadcast, and most of the remaining plays are absurdly reduced to just a few scenes. Just when they think they’ve finished, however, they realize they forgot to perform Hamlet.
The second half is dedicated to this last play and features an audience member brought on stage to portray Ophelia in a large, pink “Shakespearian snuggie,” while the rest of the audience is divided into three sections to represent her id, ego and super-ego. After finishing Hamlet, they then perform it again at a faster clip, then again in under a minute, and finally end by performing it backwards.
Because The Complete Works leaves room for improvisation and adaptation, there are numerous topical and local references throughout the play. When I attended, a skull gave way to a joke about Lindsey Lohan, Romeo remarked that the poison “tastes like the Gulf of Mexico,” and one actor was reminded “this isn’t bingo night at the Cal-Neva.” There were also references to Brett Farve, vuvuzelas, Twilight, Sarah Palin and many others. Even when the actors’ comic timing is off—which occasionally it is—it’s hard not to laugh at both the crude and clever parts of the performance.
Typically, an audience leaving a Lake Tahoe Shakespeare performance is uncritically approving. Afraid of seeming ignorant, they almost always say a performance was “good,” even if they didn’t enjoy it. But this was different. From senior citizens to teens, the smiles were genuine, the praise enthusiastic. That’s the genius of The Complete Works—like an episode of The Simpsons, it works on many levels. Those completely unfamiliar with the works of the Bard laugh heartily. Those extremely familiar laugh knowingly.
In fact, on the way out, many audience members said they were going to recommend it to their friends. And that’s a positive sign. Because if enough people attend, it might allow them to actually perform Shakespeare next year.