The success of any production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)” rises and falls almost exclusively on the chemistry between its three leads.
Actors Brendan Bowen, Clint Johnson and Andrew Vaught have got it in spades.
Harnessed by the precision control of director Carl Walker, The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane’s remount of “Complete Works” is a study in comic timing, generous give-and-take, and crowd-pleasing fun.
Those who attend the silliness unfolding in The Tulane Lab will be instantly charmed by its three young actors who win your heart, earn your laughs, and send you out the theater ready to recommend it to any and all who haven’t seen it. hey make it look simple. It’s not.
The furiously comic two-hour race through the Bard’s canon, “Complete Works” uses its first act to stampede through 36 of the plays. It transforms “Titus Andronicus” into a cooking show, compresses all 17 comedies into a unified absurdist piece, and manages to stage the history plays as a stirring football game.
And then turns its attention to the little matter of “Hamlet.”
“Complete Works” is a now popular staple of Shakespeare companies looking to give audiences an accessibly fun time. But it is play that could quickly devolve into mugging, self-indulgence and merely sporadic laughter, so it requires its collaborators keep it moving, juggle the rapid-fire character changes, and, most important, demonstrate an actual love for the playwright himself.
No. Not just love, but the very ecstasy of it.
Therefore, any sense that the three actors are detached from, commenting on or laughing at the material could give the evening a feeling of ironic wink that would undermine the deep affection that writers Daniel Singer, Adam Long and Jess Winfield invested in its creation.
I am happy to report no such attendant problems arise.
All three performers stand out equally. Garbed in Lindy Bruns’ wonderfully cartoonish costumes and with David Raphel’s playful Globe-like backdrop behind them, the three actors share an interactive energy that only Gary Rucker and Mason Wood in “Young Frankenstein” have equaled this year.
The Shakespearean trio’s interruptions seem organic, their pratfalls sudden and painful, and their joy in the material is evident.
Playing the most even-headed of the presenters, Vaught does a terrific job in milking his slow burns, building his frustrations, and laying out his painfully logical explanations.
He demonstrates real comic courage on two occasions when he has to face the audience alone and commit to lengthy repetitive gags designed to baffle the crowd before winning them back again.
Charged with the old Elizabethan tradition of men playing women, Johnson wheezes, stutters and spits Shakespeare’s women into life.
His ingratiating Mickey-Rooney-as-Puck style works perfectly for his winning the audience over and getting them involved in the action.
And Bowen navigates the difficult territory of being both a pretentious snob and hypersensitive dreamer. Taking up the role of Hamlet for the majority of the second act, he manages to make his creation both a neurotic mother-obsessive and something of a galvanizing hero.
Towards the end of show, Johnson effortlessly moves from the chaos of a comic bit and into a simple rendition of the “What A Piece of Work Is Man” speech. Lacking artifice or flourish, it quieted the crowd and served to remind that Shakespeare’s work is about the power of language to leap across hundreds of years still touching us today.
He was dressed like a girl, the house lights were up, and there wasn’t a note of music playing underneath him. And it worked just fine.
For what it is, “Complete Works” is damn near perfect.
Maybe that’s my one complaint. Because after a while, I began to imagine these three fools in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” or other Elizabethan comedies like “Shoemaker’s Holiday” or “The Alchemist.”
Perhaps next year Walker could direct these men in one of those?