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STAGE REVIEW

All their world’s a spoof

‘Shakespeare’ reaches comic heights

CALEB JON MAGOONDaniel Berger-Jones (left) and Risher Reddick are two of the three actors who play all the roles in the Orfeo Group’s production. CALEB JON MAGOONDaniel Berger-Jones (left) and Risher Reddick are two of the three actors who play all the roles in the Orfeo Group’s production. (Caleb Jon Magoon)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / July 16, 2009
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From the first thumb-wrestling match between a Montague and a Capulet to the final soliloquy by Omelet, the Cheese Danish, the Orfeo Group’s production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)’’ has enough silly puns and goofy sight gags to keep you laughing through the rest of the summer. And it delivers all of them - and at least a glancing reference to each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays - in just an hour and a half.

“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),’’ or, as Orfeo winningly abridges the title, “The Complete WOWS(A),’’ originated in the twisted minds of three young London-based performers in 1987: Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. After staging an abbreviated “Romeo and Juliet,’’ which they followed up with a condensed “Hamlet,’’ the trio sandwiched all the other plays between these two set pieces, thereby creating a durable, if lightweight, diversion for theaters around the Shakespeare-loving world.

But the show has always depended heavily on improvisation and on adaptation to each new audience, so it can range from mildly amusing to snort-soda-out-your-nose hilarious. Orfeo’s version, staged in a picnic-friendly fashion on the outdoor stage normally occupied by the Publick Theatre, hits the high end of that scale. And I have the root beer stains from my son’s beverage to prove it - along with his plea, before the play was even over, that we go back another evening to see it again. The shows start at a kid-friendly 6:45 p.m. or so (because the stage’s lights are under repair this summer), and Thursdays are free, so we just might do it.

What makes this production work is the crisp, precise, and controlled comic work of the three actors who play all the parts: Daniel Berger-Jones, Gabriel Kuttner, and Risher Reddick. Directed with subtle wit and surprisingly varied emotional shading by the Shakespearean and comedic veteran Steven Barkhimer, their performances are exquisitely ridiculous without ever becoming self-conscious. They are funny because they’re not constantly begging us to notice how funny they are.

And they’re also funny because - well, because Shakespeare is funny, when you know how to play with him. Interestingly enough, “Complete WOWS(A)’’ concludes that the tragedies are funnier than the comedies - and, when you’re constructing parodies, that’s certainly true. So the script knocks the bard’s 16 comedies down into one, jokingly justifying the move by pointing out that all his comedies only used the same four gimmicks anyway.

The histories are similarly shoehorned into a single bit, a football game narrated in perfect sportscaster-ese by Kuttner as his colleagues toss the ball - er, crown - from one royal house to the next. “Titus Andronicus’’ becomes a gleefully gory cooking show, and even the sonnets make a brief appearance to help an amusingly desperate Berger-Jones fill time when Reddick “runs away’’ because he’s intimidated at the thought of performing a chopped “Hamlet.’’

That “Hamlet,’’ which constitutes the whole second act of the play, may also be its funniest section - in part because the actors get a few moments in which to slip in some actual Shakespeare, which only heightens the absurdity of the takeoffs. When Reddick slows down for a moment to speak the “What a piece of work is a man’’ soliloquy, we pause with him to savor the richness and complexity of Shakespeare’s language and thought, then happily jump back on the merry-go-round again for another spin.

No one takes credit - or is that blame? - for the cheerfully hideous costumes and props, which range from a lavender bobbed wig (for the bearded Reddick to wear in many of the female roles) to minimalist kilts (for the Scottish play, natch) fashioned of plaid dishtowels. But these items contribute nicely to the casual air of found comedy, as does the graffiti-adorned wall that’s all the set this show needs.

It would be fun to keep describing and quoting from this merry mix of great art and gut-busting laughter, but it is, after all, a show about keeping things short and sweet. So there’s really only one thing to say: Wowsa.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (ABRIDGED) Play by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield

Directed by: Steven Barkhimer. Presented by Orfeo Group.

At: Christian Herter Park, outdoor stage, through Aug. 9. Tickets: $15; free each Thursday and free Fridays with student ID. 617-824-4215, www.orfeogroup.org

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