Dallas — A lovely evening breeze cooled the grassy amphitheater surrounding the grand outdoor stage at Samuell-Grand Park on Saturday night as patrons arranged picnic baskets and quilts for the 2015 summer season opener of Shakespeare Dallas. But hark! What madcap act is this? A man—or maybe a guy in a long apron—makes a mad dash through the audience and climbs the ladder on the lighting tower, and starts shouting for Romeo to get a move on. We’ve been forewarned that this tale of timeless romance is mainly about Romeo “trying to get into Juliet’s pants.”
Everybody’s laughing, and yet Romeo and Juliet is supposed to be a tragedy!
But, of course, it’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised], a comic condensation of Shakespeare’s 37 plays that promises to stage all the bard’s published works in 97 minutes. It took a tad longer on Saturday at Shakespeare in the Park, and that doesn’t count an exciting thunderstorm interruption in the first half and a 20-minute intermission shortly after the show resumed. Still, no one complained because most were busy tracking the three men in tights ripping through the comedies and slaughtering the tragedies. And I do mean slaughter!
Gory Titus Andronicus becomes a chatty cooking show awash with buckets of blood and endangered body parts. Getting plenty of laughs from the 12-year-olds present, one actor repeatedly ran into the audience in vomiting spasms from poison ingested early on.
Directed in go-for-broke style by Shakespeare Dallas Artistic Director Raphael Parry, the show features three hard-working actors playing 1,122 roles—or at least aware that a bushel of Elizabethan types exist in a script somewhere. Anthony L. (Tony) Ramirez, Clay Wheeler, and Steven (Steve) Young play themselves and a mash-up of men, women and cross-dressers, from Macbeth to Ophelia, with just a kilt popped on here and a gown thrown on there. All are experienced Shakespearean actors, clearly enjoying this manic and silly romp through the canon as much as their opening night patrons.
Written in 1987 by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield (aka Reduced Shakespeare Company), the show was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and later ran for nine years in London’s West End. The popular show’s framework and many sketches are incorporated into most performances, but producers also include timely events and local icons in their improvisations, as they do here. Given the current title, apparently there were revisions at some point.
An occasional prop—a skull or a crown—falls into the front row and is fetched by the guys, eager to engage the audience in their antics. They drop the fourth wall from the get-go, chatting up the girls and imploring the audience to join in an argument. At one point, Clay escorts a willing young woman onto the stage to play a Freudian interpretation of Ophelia, and instructs her to scream when she hears the word “nunnery.” She squealed like a pro, by the way. The most ambitious audience participation stunt involves dividing everybody into four parts to chant instructions to Olivia’s ego and wave their arms, while her id shouts on the other side of the aisle. Lots of noise from a happy lawn of campers.
Tellingly, the dozen comedies are simply dumped into one rapid-fire string of names and assignations, fairy flutterings and donkey brayings, since they all have the same main plot fixtures, anyway. “Come hither, I’ll show you my zither,” rhymes one ardent suitor in whatever magical forest. The speed and playfulness of the actors got plenty of chuckles on this bit. Young summarizes how all these dudes playing girls and men playing men end up in their respective plays. “They all go and get married in any state but Texas,” he explains.
Tragedies get more laughs than comedies in this show. Othello is delivered rap-style, with a little rock ’n’ roll thrown in. “Play that funky Moor thang, white boy,” shouts Ramirez. Mid-sketch, whoever is shouting the Iago role declares he’s feeling sorry for Jerry Jones having to deal with Dez Bryant and his escalating price tag. The Cowboys and Romo get more than one mention, to the applause of the audience.
The most physical sketch of the evening worked best on the big empty stage, which swallowed up some of the talkier amalgamations. To the question, “Why can’t all this Shakespeare stuff be more like sports,” our guys say, “Why not?” The three attack the bard’s history plays like summer football camp, weaving kings and plots together as a madcap game, with King John handing off a golden crown to Richard III, who passes it to one of the many Henrys, and so on and on.
Guess who comes to the rescue on third down?
Most of the audience members returned after the long rain delay, and closed down the show along with the troupe, who performed Hamlet, faster and faster and finally backwards, as they wrapped the show at 11 p.m. Not rain nor storm nor summer lightning held back this doughty troupe, and, as one actor says, “All’s well that finally ends.”
Check the weather report before you go. The Tempest may be on the schedule.
» The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) alternates with Romeo and Juliet, directed by René Moreno. Complete Works is performed Wednesdays-Fridays; and R&J is Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays through July 26.