Laughing at Shakespeare

Review of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at Theatre 99.

“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” elevates comedy’s ability to communicate intellectual ideas. But it also challenges the audience to obtain a prerequisite knowledge before enjoying nearly two hours of cross-dressing, slapstick humor.

This production of “Complete Works,” which different companies play across the United States, will not disappoint. The play sails through Shakespeare’s 37 plays while maintaining respect for the playwright’s significance to Anglo-American culture.

Greg Tavares, Steven Shields and Timmy Finch star and direct this production, which plays at Theatre 99 as part of the 2013 Piccolo Fringe series. The actors display an impressive multi-faceted talent for acting, singing and choreography. But their simultaneous mastery of comedic timing and enunciation worthy of the Bard are regrettably underappreciated – sidelined by cheers for their falling down and theatrical screams.

The overwhelming majority of the audience has had at least one interaction with Shakespeare, according to a show of hands at the start of the performance. Yet the intensity of their laughter spiked at moments when one of the male performers feigned discomfort over kissing another playing a woman. For an audience that cheered at a reference condemning South Carolina’s homophobic marriage laws, such behavior was inadvertently reactionary. Knowledge of Shakespeare evidently does not contribute enough to cultural enlightenment.

This was not the lone instance of questionable audience reaction.

Disconcertingly, a mention about Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway produced an outburst of chuckles. Some in the audience may have been under the impression that this factual statement was an anachronistic joke about the Academy Award winning actress. But to be fair, Adolf Hitler found his way into a monologue, and moments of confusion were bound to occur.

Kevin Williamson, theater critic for The New Criterion, found similarly ill-timed laughter troubling at this year’s Broadway production of “Macbeth.” This is hardly a new phenomenon, but it should make us question humor’s relationship to drama.

To borrow from the design of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London: our culture is certainly not in the pits of Hell, but we are not soaring in Heaven’s skies either.

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