Arts theater review

The adventures of Omelette and the gang

37 plays, 97 minutes, Actors’ Shakespeare Project delivers raucous slapstick with aplomb

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Rachel Belleman, Marc Pierre, and Ivy Ryan play out Shakespeare’s historical plays as a football game.
Nile Scott Studios

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
Written by Jess Winfield, Adam Long, and Daniel Singer
Directed by Christopher V. Edwards
Charlestown Working Theater
Dec. 21–Jan. 12

It is with undisguised relish that the members of Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production took to hacking, smacking, and hacky-sacking the hallowed writer’s compendium of 37 plays. Shakespeare himself, I believe, would have thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Not only did the average level of humor resonate with the Bard’s own baser jokes, but the comedic timing and the virtuosity of the acting would have brought a smile to his lips.

The production is a parody in two acts performed by a meager cast of three actors who each bring an outsized talent and energy. The consecrated texts are transformed into comedy sketches. Romeo and Juliet face a rift no prince can hope to smooth over — they come from Red Sox and Yankees stock. Titus Andronicus is a grisly cooking show. Othello, once its questions of intersectionality are settled, becomes a rap. Shakespeare’s “comedic diarrhea” is condensed into one amalgam, as are his historical plays, which are turned into an American football match. After some waffling, the collection is rounded out with several rounds of Hamlet.

Had the acting been bad, this show would have been downright painful to sit through. While the production features some witty referential jokes and creative outlining in its own right, much of the humor is physical comedy, slapstick, sexual and bodily jokes, and audience baiting — the sort of stuff that, when done artlessly, can make you want to slink low in your seat, avoid eye contact with the purveyors, and think about what you’ll pack for lunch tomorrow. Despite my customary aversion to this type of humor, I had tears rolling down my face from laughter, because these three actors... boy, were they good.

Rachel Belleman displayed an incredible range, swinging from a convincing Big Lebowski-style, exasperating character to the most heartfelt delivery of the second-best soliloquy in Hamlet. As she recited, “What a work is man,” silence descended upon the audience, who had been expecting another gag but instead were greeted by a thing of beauty. Throughout the show, Belleman is interacting with the audience, quickly disarming people with her ingenuousness and then fake-vomiting in their laps.

Marc Pierre had the unenviable task of engaging the audience when the other two “ran off” for a long stretch of time. He was able to hold the attention of the room on understated awkwardness alone — conveying his discomfort without spreading the contagion. He, too, is a master of transformation, running the gamut from an emo Romeo to a mincing Julius Caesar to interpretive dancer for Troilus and Cressida, transitioning from detached indulgence at the start to harried distress at the end

Ivy Ryan regularly set the pace, managing to be the lead character (Prologue, Hamlet, cooking show host) without monopolizing our attention. Her delivery of the bizarre Prologue gives an initial taste of her elocution and a well-balanced blend of sincerity and ridiculity. Her physical acting, from dancing to frequent dabbing to policing Rachel (who “always goes too far”), brings a dynamism to the production, while the exaggerated accents spice things up.

However skillful the actors were, the show felt like it was a bit too long, which was most keenly felt when Rachel and Ivy run away for an extended period (spanning the intermission). The joke lasted too long to keep the humor fresh, and it felt like a stall for time. The extended audience participation during the Freudian analysis of Hamlet felt shoehorned in and was not as enjoyable as other aspects of the show, although the actors were excellent audience wranglers. 

While The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) has been put on for more than 30 years, ASP imbues it with a strong improvisational and local flavor. Seamlessly worked into jokes are references to the 2020 election and contemporary politics, to recent series on Netflix, and to Boston landmarks.

Pulling off a parody this well requires carefully thought-out directorial work, coordinating the pacing, blocking, transitions and embellishments, and actor interplay with the audience. Christopher V. Edwards demonstrates his versatility: it is hard to imagine the same directing hand guiding the serious, intellectual Equivocation (2018) and this romping bacchanalia. But the quality of the acting in this production identifies it unequivocally with ASP.