Staging The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at the New American Shakespeare Tavern might seem like a no-brainer. However, the sophomoric romp through the collected Shakespeare succeeds at the Tavern for reasons that have nothing to do with the Bard.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which created the show and broadly humorous condensed versions of the Bible and other subjects, clearly works and performs as a long-standing team. Previous Atlanta productions have cast funny actors, but they've never captured that natural, unforced comfort level of an established comedic trio. The Tavern's Complete Works, directed by Maurice Ralston, features Shakespeare vets Jeff McKerley and Tony Brown along with new favorite Paul Hester, who clearly have that chemistry with each other and the theater's loyal audience.
Thus the Tavern's Complete Works feels loose and friendly to the point of outright raucousness, with the spectators freely shouting out comments and the players ad-libbing zingers while trying not to crack up. The playhouse's familiarity with Shakespeare inspires gags about themselves and other theaters, like Brown's little dig at Georgia Shakespeare: "Direct audience address sets us apart from other Shakespeare theaters ... and festivals!"
Fast-forward versions of Romeo and Juliet at the beginning and Hamlet for nearly all of Act Two provide the highlights, despite (or maybe because of) the juvenile tone. Hester, playing the various dying female characters, pretends to vomit Silly String all over the theater. When McKerley's Romeo recites, "Call me but love," Hester's Juliet interrupts, "Call you butt-love?"
The Reduced Shakespeare Company first performed Complete Works in 1987, and though it's updated with contemporary political and pop references, some of the shtick really shows its age, like Othello as a Run-D.M.C.-era rap song, or the grisly Titus Andronicus treated as a cooking show. Ironically, the play's rare glimpses of real Shakespeare, like Hester's sincere rendition of Hamlet's "What a piece of work is man" speech, make the contemporary comedy sound far more dated than the 400-year-old source material. But the script's weaknesses aren't enough to sink the Tavern's Complete Works, which feels like a summertime cast party to blow off steam after producing a full season of Shakespeare straight-up.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) plays through Aug. 6 at the New American Shakespeare Tavern, 499 Peachtree St. Thurs.-Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 6:30 p.m. $19.50-$24.50. 404-874-5299. www.shakespearetavern.com.
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