Delaware Theatre Company presents ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised]’

Get thee to silly Shakespeare

The Reduced Shakespeare Theatre’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] — onstage at Delaware Theatre Company (DTC) — is an undeniable phenomenon. Since premiering at the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it’s been produced literally thousands of times.

Jeffrey C. Hawkins puts on a show within the show. (Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media.)

Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield’s elastic script makes three tireless actors perform all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. It also allows companies to personalize, update, and localize the material, making each production unique.

DTC’s spirited revival exceeds the play’s titanic reputation, using the cast’s comedic talents well. Director Steve Tague staged the company’s first production of this show 10 years ago, and it shows in the cast’s assured pacing and easy rapport with Wilmington audiences. Since it was the first DTC show seen by company executive director Bud Martin, it also earned Tague the job of staging it again.

Fear of Shakespeare

The Complete Works blasts through people’s fear of Shakespeare, a bit of high-school torture from which many never recover.  From the start, the zany efforts of Josh Carpenter, Jeffrey C. Hawkins, and John Zak blow away any whiff of pretentiousness.

Hawkins appears as a “Pre-eminent Shakespeare Scholar” with a shaky online degree. Zak reads Shakespeare’s biography from his iPhone, somehow mixing in details from Hitler’s life. Carpenter’s character — dressed at first as a DTC usher — gapes in awe at these geniuses.

They burst into the canon with one that everyone knows, Romeo and Juliet, in which Zak plays Juliet and wears the first of many wigs and flowy frocks (witty, colorful costumes by Barbara Hughes). Set designer Stefanie Hansen leaves plenty of room for chaos with a wide-open Elizabethan set featuring seven entrances. 

Titus Andronicus becomes a Gordon Ramsey cooking show, Othello turns into a rap, and Julius Caesar comes alive through interpretive dance. By the first act’s end, the trio has frantically covered all but one script: Western theater’s most revered tragedy, Hamlet.

Close to home

Tague’s production includes local references such as cheesesteaks, Wing Bowl, and the nearby Wilmington train station, as well as contemporary references to fidget spinners, Game of Thrones, and our omnipresent smartphones. Hansen’s set features holiday red and green, but actors — at Martin’s behest, they explain, for “holiday flair” — add Christmas lights after intermission.

Carpenter’s curtain speech is part of the show, as is the program. Read the cast and staff biographies for more laughs (Hawkins, for example, "played the title role" in Scoop Rep’s Waiting for Godot). Not a moment is wasted.

Act II is all Hamlet, including a puppet show play-within-the-play; an audience-participation bit in which we create Ophelia’s state of mind when Hamlet says “Get thee to a nunnery”; and three encores, in which the play is presented fast, even faster, and, incredibly, backward. The climactic swordfight becomes an epic comedic ballet.

My favorite part of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised],  which many productions gloss over, is when an actor recites Hamlet’s soliloquy, “What a piece of work is a man."

Even here, the language mesmerizes us with simple, surprising sincerity. Zak does the honors, and it’s a perfect moment, neither overly stressed nor tossed out, a transcendent few seconds to experience Shakespeare’s true grace and power. And then the silliness continues. 

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