Speed is the principle pleasure of The Compleat Works of Wllm. Shkspre. (Abridged), showing through August 8 at the Hasty Pudding Theatre. From the beginning, the play's trio of actors (Erik Amblad, Will Burke and Adam "Waka" Green) plainly state their mission--to present all of Shakespeare's plays--and take off like horses from a starting gate. They begin with a comparably lengthy rendition of Romeo and Juliet, continue with truncated versions of the Tragedies, and, with time running short, condense the Comedies into a skit in double time, and further distill the Histories into a few symbolic football plays. The Compleat Works ends in a rush when the players boil Hamlet down to five breath-taking words.
If these three madcap actors weren't on stage, they would be more like cartoon characters than anything. It is overtly hilarious, and like a cartoon, the play organizes its humor into episodic bursts. Each "play" (like Romeo and Juliet) or group of plays (like the Comedies) is distinctly hilarious and could easily stand on its own as a short skit. The Titus Andronicus cooking show, the Othello rap, and the Histories football game were each side-splittingly funny.
The three characters that emerge between play-episodes are just as humorous, if also as two-dimensional, as cartoon characters. The players call each other by their real names--Erik, Will and Waka ("real" is relative on and off the stage)--and portray Shakespearean actors in the same way that Bugs Bunny portrays a rabbit: They play caricatures, not characters. The "actors" are shy, ironic, angst-ridden, occasionally obnoxious and grossly human. Their closest Shakespearean analogues are the Rude Mechanics in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Critics of other productions of The Compleat Works who have deemed the play "corny" were probably put off by the silly antics that fill time between the genuinely comical play-episodes. It is a great credit to Amblad, Burke and Green that their characters come off as outrageously as they do. They turn what might have been embarrassingly earnest characters into authentic figures of slapstick. Like a good cartoon, The Compleat Works is clever and accessible on many levels (think "Animaniacs").
Shakespeare himself, who perfected the double entendre, would have appreciated the sight gags and lowbrow humor that comprise so much of this play. Traditional gags and constant physical comedy alone make this play funny, but rich word-play quickens and deepens the humor. The writers who created The Compleat Works are clearly Shakespearean scholars. "That which we call a nose, by any other name, would still smell," philosophizes one actor in the ten-minute version of Romeo and Juliet at the play's inception. Allusions to contemporary pop culture not only demonstrate Shakespeare's relevance, but allow the audience to play along with the actors' jokes. However, as clever and as brutally funny as the script is, The Compleat Works is an actor's tour de force. Amblad, Burke and Green give virtuosity-level performances in this zany comedy. Amblad's rendition of Juliet's Italian nurse is worlds apart from his despondent teenager routine as Romeo. Likewise, Green's portrayal of an alternately insane and Valley Girl-esque Ophelia is completely dissimilar to his abruptly lyrical Hamlet in the "What a piece of work is man" speech. Amblad and Green share a rare stage chemistry; it will come as no surprise to the audience that they have played these (and other) roles together before. They performed with Sabrina Howells of Boston University.in a production of The Compleat Works this past spring at the Loeb Experimental Theatre. Burke, who in the time between play-episodes serves as the straight-man, becomes funny in his own right as the unforgettable chef in the Titus Andronicus cooking show.
The Compleat Works boasts a widely experienced directorial and production crew. A quick glance at the program reveals that the actors are not the only veterans of Harvard theater. Despite its cast of familiar Harvard names, this is not a Harvard production. This summer's performance of The Compleat Works was staged by Summer Stages, a company established by the cast and crew. Co-directors Jerald Korn and Elena DeCoste said that when they realized how many experienced actors, directors, producers, and crew members were staying in Cambridge for the summer, they decided it would be worth the risk to establish Summer Stages and present this play. Thus, The Compleat Works is a fully professional production, and deserves accolades not only for its artistic quality, but for the dedication of the producers and founders of Summer Stages who put much more than just time and effort on the line for the show. Fortunately, The Compleat Works more than lives up to both the pressure of a professional production and the collective pressure of the company's vast theater experience. It is a fitting tribute to the veterans of Harvard theater, and a rich and hilarious gift to the Harvard Summer community.