Montana Actors’ Theatre undertakes speedy Shakespeare

Montana Actors’ Theatre undertakes speedy Shakespeare

Jay Pyette

September 24, 2010, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian

The plays of William Shakespeare are celebrated for many reasons; brevity is not one of them. The shortest of the Bard’s scripts, “The Comedy of Errors,” typically takes upward of an hour and 15 minutes to perform. The longest, “Hamlet,” can drag on for more than four hours.

Or, it can be done in 43 seconds.

That’s just one of the hilarious conceits of “Th Cmplt Wrks of Wllm Shkspr, Abrig’d” the smash-hit mashup penned and produced by the Reduced Shakespeare Company in 1987. Written for a cast of just three actors, the two-act parody manages to stuff all of Shakespeare’s plays – as well as his sonnets – into a comic package that has, ironically, become more popular than many of Shakespeare’s originals.

“The amazing thing about the script is that it’s not just a greatest-hits; it’s all the hits,” quipped Daniel Haley, who directs Montana Actors’ Theatre’s current production of “Th Cmplt Wrks of Wllm Shkspr, Abrig’d” at the Crystal Theatre. “What’s so beautiful about it, it’s about these three guys who are determined to bring Shakespeare to the masses and make it accessible; and the success of this play since it was written has actually achieved that.”

To be sure, one doesn’t walk away from a production of “Th Cmplt Wrks” with an in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre of 38 plays and 154 sonnets. The sixteen comedies, for example, are all conflated into one convoluted skit. “Titus Andronicus” is reduced to a dense consommé and presented as a cooking show; the witches and warring of “Macbeth” are shaved down to a single duel.

And while “Hamlet” takes up the bulk of the second act, the three performers manage to squeeze in several, increasingly condensed performances of the script, ending with one that runs backward.

With its combination of irreverence, humor, and subtly innovative storytelling, “Th Cmplt Wrks of Wllm Shakspr, Abrg’d” was a major hit on London’s West End (England’s equivalent of Broadway), where it ran for ten straight years, making it the longest-running stage comedy in that country’s history. Since then, it has been produced frequently around the world; in fact, a separate production of the script is wrapping up this weekend at the Hamilton Playhouse, with performances tonight through Sunday (see for information on that production).

Haley said the enduring appeal of the script goes beyond its humor.

“On a serious level, I think this (script) gives not only an associative property to Shakespeare, but it really opens the gate for people to look and experience the plays for themselves without taking them so seriously,” said Haley. “Shakespeare is meant to be enjoyed first and foremost, after all; and I think it’d be hard not to enjoy this approach to his work.”

For the Missoula production, Haley and his cast of actors (Jim Badcock, Sam Williamson, and Ezra LeBank) have added a few touches of their own, including a filmed version of the cooking-show condensation of “Titus Andronicus,” and a projected stick-figure animation to accompany the run-through of the comedies.

Haley said the result should be equally fresh and pleasing to those familiar with the script, those familiar with Shakespeare, or those who simply are looking for a good time.

“We’ve kept the show PG-13, it is family-friendly sillyness,” said Haley, “so I encourage people of varying ages to come.”

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