The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), the ultra-light theatrical romp that compacts the great playwright's lifetime output in ways that make CliffsNotes look expansive, is actually tried-and-true vaudeville. It's the classic clash between high and low art - just add some manic frat-house energy, and laughs are inevitable. But that doesn't mean you automatically have a show.
That's why the three-member Commonwealth Classic Theatre cast, starting a run of 11 free performances through July 27 at various regional venues, must have felt shot out of a cannon Thursday at the Morris Arboretum. Their 100-minute show - some of it brilliant, some of it tired - is a lot of comedy to sustain.
Not everything worked, and there was plenty of overplaying, a safe approach especially when the amplification system is blipping in and out.
But much of the performance hummed along in ways suggesting that audiences will get the full blast of what the script has to offer as the run progresses.
The conceit is three guys getting together to guide us through Shakespeare, though they secretly admit they don't know the canon all that well, and though some of them are averse to kissing each other when female roles of necessity are played by men wearing intentionally bad wigs.
One of them has a standard acting choice when he gets into a fix: He vomits. Another is stranded onstage when the other two run away for some poorly motivated reason. So he performs Shakespeare speeches in the manner of famous movie stars, the humor being that the only voice he can really do is Arnold Schwarzenegger's.
The script, by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, is at its best when riffing on Shakespeare rather than parodying it. Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet have been sent up so many times that to do it with frat guys playing the roles is bound to be tiresome. But when the trio present a cooking show as a postscript to Titus Andronicus - with possibilities limited by having had hands and tongues amputated - the show goes to a different place, something like Saturday Night Live at its best. It's here that the script supports the actors rather than counting on them to float a leaky boat.
Underneath it all, the Commonwealth cast, directed by M. Craig Getting, has real Shakespearean chops. Even the guy who plays the dumbest of the three, Steven "Andrew" Albitz, delivers a fairly beautiful speech at one point. Eric Scotolati has the toughest assignment; his character sets up the story and provides a frame of sorts.
The best material goes to Jamison Foreman, and he makes the most of it, playing the title role of Hamlet, among other things, often starting any given theatrical paragraph by playing the role for real (and well) before the disruptive comedy sets in.
Foreman's vocal and charismatic resources suggest a genuine Hamlet in the making (assuming he's not too busy writing his next musical - the young UArts grad does things like that). Also, his detailed reactions to his colleagues often clarify the nature of the comedy at hand, which is particularly valuable in places where the other actors fall back on non-specific craziness.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dates and venues for future performances can be found at www.commonwealthclassictheatre.org. The performances are free.