Where Tragedies Meet Hilarity

After a three-year absence from the spotlight in Vienna, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) is back at the International Theatre with a strong dose of humor and wit

Jeff Sturgeon in his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet | Photo: Laura Mitchell

The stage at the International Theatre is empty as we enter, with only a lion-clawed armchair and a fat copy of The Illustrated Stratford Shakespeare leaning upright against the back. Here’s the problem, to do on stage what this bulky book manages between its embossed covers: to bundle all of Shakespeare’s pieces into one event. The Collected Works is over 1000 pages long, while tonight’s performance will be less than two hours – a challenge, to say the least.

“Right through these doors, ladies,” a loud voice echoes from the side. The show’s about to start.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) was brought back to life in this revival through Nov. 3 and is fueled by the energy of three actors, Barry Currid, Jeff Sturgeon, and Jack Babb, who manage to perform at least something from all 37 plays in two hours on the stage.

Hailed the finest playwright and poet in the English language, Shakespeare’s plays have survived every test of time and intellectual fashion, with mastery of character and wit, whose eternal themes of love, loyalty, pride, jealousy and revenge are as relevant today as they were in the late 16th century. Even when he is parodied, shortened, and transformed almost beyond recognition (this particular joyous romp has been performed in a dozen languages) his works are still irresistible in Vienna and worldwide.

The production was originally written by Jess Borgeson, Adam Long, and Daniel Singer and first performed in 1987 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and then at the Criterion Theatre in London where it ran for nine years. It debuted in Vienna in the International Theatre three years ago and was so successful that it was brought back for another run with director Christopher Hoffmann leading the cast.

The production begins with Barry walking on stage and introducing himself as a Shakespeare master, having read all of two of his plays. His curly red hair, knee-length, loose shorts on a white shirt and ripped Puma sneakers with socks sticking up are a perfect opening act, setting the stage for the ridiculousness to come.

Sitting in the front row – our feet only centimeters from the stage – meant direct interaction with the three actors, who masterfully combine skillful performance and spontaneous interaction with the audience and used us as props for their storytelling.

“Are you reviewers?” Jack asks us shortly after he has entered, seeing us scribble into our notebooks. “If I promise to have sex with you, will you give me a good review?” he continues. “Have you ever had sex with a guy in a dress? What if I promise not to have sex with you?” The audience can’t hold it any longer, and neither can we. Laughter fills the hall from all sides. We’re off to a good start.

The first act is a shortened and (very) modernized recreation of the love-story between Romeo and Juliet, in which the balcony scene is described as “a scene of timeless romance, where Romeo tries to get into Juliet’s pants.” Unfortunately for a distraught Jack, he is the one chosen to play Juliet (and all other female roles in the play, as we will later realize), and is therefore sent backstage only to come back moments later wearing a pink dress and a blond wig.

The drama continues with Titus Andronicus staged as a cooking show, with the noble Roman General teaching us how to make pie from the man who raped his daughter, Lavinia. Othello follows, performed as a rap piece about “a guy named Othello who liked green Jell-O,” ending with Jeff’s clumsy and yet hilarious break dance solo.

A quick costume change (accompanied by an Oops! and Ouch! from backstage and a worried look or two out to the audience on the part of Jeff) and the three actors are back, in white tie and tails, this time presenting their theory on how Shakespeare is a “formula writer” and how all of his 16 comedies follow one basic storyline.

“Why did you have to write 16 comedies when you could have written only one?” is the actors’ call-out to the late playwright. “Your tragedies are way funnier,” Jack adds and explains to the audience that they would combine all 16 comedies into one.

They then quickly enact Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth, which is accompanied by “perrrrfect” Scottish accents and kilts. The histories are depicted through a game of American football, tossing a crown from King John to Henry VI and King Lear instead of a ball. Thinking they were done, the men borrow (and later crumple, therefore destroying) a program from an audience member and realize that they have left out one play – Hamlet. With Jeff in the main role of the prince of Denmark and Barry as his friend Horatio, there is only one little hurdle they need to overcome before they can start: Jack runs away, knowing that (again!) he will have to get into a dress and play a woman.

“That play sucks!” he yells as he runs out of the hall. In Shakespearean times, this would have been harder to parody, as theater was considered one step shy of prostitution and all female roles would have been played by the Jacks of the world in dresses and wigs.

Act II is an extremely eventful rendition of Hamlet including an explanation of why the famous “to be or not to be” speech is actually terrible (he should be talking about killing his uncle but instead he is considering killing himself, apparently weakening the character) and Jack still refusing to play Ophelia, the maiden Hamlet is courting.

In his place they drag a woman from the audience who they decide to call Bob. All she has to do is scream, so they break down what is going through Ophelia’s mind into a Freudian analysis of her ego, superego, and id. The first two rows of the audience sway their hands back and forth saying “maybe, maybe not” as the id. A man (also dubbed Bob) is pulled on stage to run back and forth representing the ego. The final rows are split into two to depict the superego, half of them reciting “get thee to a nunnery” and the other half chanting “cut the crap Hamlet, my biological clock is ticking and I want babies now!” The end product was a chaotic scene with the whole audience yelling at once, a conductor-style sign for silence and the female Bob’s impressively shrill scream to top it off, reminding us of Jack’s surprisingly high voice.

Taking into account that he is noticeably shorter (and rounder) than both his colleagues, and not forgetting the pink dress and the long braided wig, his extraordinary flexibility made him a fine choice for the female characters. Still, his two fellow actors did not have any problems keeping up. Jeff Sturgeon came across as a very confused, but credible Hamlet as he crawled between our seats in the midst of his dying act, and a bit earlier as a confident Shakespeare expert, who is looking forward to writing a book entitled I love my Willy, referring not only to Shakespeare’s first name, but also to what one might call a “supporting actor.” And Barry Currid was equally entertaining, excluding his guitar performance of his song Rooftops, which was slightly too competant to fit into the rest of the evening.

The play closes after Hamlet has been played three more times, each of the versions performed faster than the previous one, and the very last one acted out backwards – an ending that left many of us reciting on our way out: “be to not or be to…”

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