Monday, May 20, 2019

The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) (1999)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) was either:
  1. Written by people who love Shakespeare for people who hate Shakespeare.
  2. Written by people who hate Shakespeare for people who love Shakespeare.
  3. Written by comedians for an audience of absolutely no one.
Nick Koesters, self & Allen Branstein
(Beck Center for the Arts, 1999)
The bane of critics everywhere and to the delight of audiences everywhere, this show has been produced constantly since first produced by the Reduced Shakespeare Company at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987. The wife and I saw the original in 1997, near the end of its nine year run at the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End.

Classify this one as Shakespeare (not) On Stage, as not only does Shakespeare not appear, but the entire play ostensibly celebrates Shakespeare while simultaneously reinforcing those elements that everyone hates about Shakespeare.

It is also horribly dated, including gags that are casually sexist and outright racist, that is, unless you think the idea of three white guys deciding to interpret Othello as a rap song as “cute.”

This month, I will appear for only the third time onstage at Beck Center, and each time in the Studio Theatre. Eric Schmiedl’s adaptation of King Lear opens May 31. Seven years ago, I played Chris in Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn.

Twenty years ago, with Nick Koesters and Allen Branstein, we performed The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).

I was shocked when director Roger Truesdell asked me to consider the role, especially playing against two accomplished comedic actors. “But Roger,” I said. “I’m not funny.”

“Yes, you are,” Roger said. “You’re just afraid people might think you are.”

The one saving grace of Complete Works is the note on the front page which reads:
“... it’s also important to keep the show fresh and timely by updating the many topical references as events warrant.”
To put it another way, you are free to change the script to make it funny. As a result we felt entirely justified in not only changing the late-80s pop culture references to late-90s pop culture references, but also anything else that wasn’t funny.

What we couldn’t do was write a different play, so we still labored with the Titus Andronicus cooking show, including my lame impersonation of the then-87-year-old Julia Child (huh-larious) and the aforementioned “Othello Rap.” At least we could pretend to be appalled, like you do, and to change truly offensive verses like:
Now Othello loved Desi like Adonis Loved VENUS
And Desi loved Othello cuz he had a big … SWORD
AL: Desdemona, she was faithful, she was chastity tight
DAVID: She was the daughter of a duke
NICK: Yeah, she was totally white
My voice was more Ad Rock than Ice Cube.

We also had great fun tweaking other local companies. Our changes are in red.
AL: One popular trend is to take Shakespeare’s plays and transpose them into modern settings. We have seen evidence of this with Shakespeare’s plays set in such bizarre locations as the lunar landscape, Nazi concentration camps and even Akron.
DAVID: Akron?
NICK: Who does Shakespeare in Akron?
Later, I had a discursion regarding ‘The Apocrypha’ or those works whose authorship was once in dispute, referred to as “‘The Lesser Plays,’ or simply, ‘The Bad Plays.’ And yet, not all of The Apocrypha are completely without merit … except Edward III.”

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival had produced the only-recently canonized Edward III that past summer. One night a contingent from the company were in the audience and they booed my little joke.

“Oh,” I ad-libbed,” you’ve seen it.”

I went on to to describe what a fascinating play Troilus and Cressida is, but then bore the shit out of absolutely everyone, which is coincidentally what I also did for Cleve Shakes audiences in 2018.

We changed scripted references about Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Boris Yeltsin to Donald Trump, Rudolph Giuliani and Vladimir Putin, which are more relevant now than they were twenty years ago.

The inclusion of Putin was odd, though, because the run of the show ran over into the year 2000, and Vladimir Putin was only just inaugurated on January 1st of that year -- we changed the reference from Boris Yeltsin after the announcement.

No one knew anything about him, except the name, so I suggested we change Nick’s recitation on "Chernobyl Kinsman" (Two Noble Kinsman, get it?) to include this exchange:
NICK: Does it have Vladimir Putin in it?
DAVID: It doesn’t have anybody pootin’ in it, Nick.
He's a monster. We didn't know.

We threw in Ally McBeal jokes, Jar-Jar Binks jokes, references to The Blair Witch Project, and my personal favorite, when Nick’s Macduff emerged with "the usurper's cursed head,” he was, in fact, holding a replica of his own head, which was the same prop used when he played the lead in Macbeth at Beck Center the previous season.

It gets better. As prescribed in the stage directions, “(drop kicks the head into the audience)” -- but then Nick hollered, "GOOOOOAAAL!!!!" and ran in a tight circle, before sliding on his knees and ripping off his shirt to reveal a Brandi Chastain inspired black sports bra (Google Women’s World Cup 1999.)

The script as written closes with a familiar theater cliché:
"If you enjoyed the show, tell your friends. If you didn't, tell your enemies."
By the second weekend we were sold-out in spite of receiving some scathing reviews from those aforementioned critics who simply hate the idea of this admittedly dumb little play.
AL: If you enjoyed the show, tell your friends.
DAVID: If you didn't ... you must work for the Free Times, man.
Exit, pursued by a laugh.

Beck Center for the Arts presents "King Lear" directed by Eric Schmiedl, May 31 - June 30, 2019

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