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Participatory comedy at North Coast Rep

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Photo courtesy of NCRT.

Each spring North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka produces a Shakespeare play. This spring it is producing all of them.

That's the premise of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised], now on stage at North Coast Rep: 37 Shakespeare plays reduced to a single show. That description suggests that there's nothing but Shakespeare for its entire 90-plus minutes. But there's so much more going on — including copious audience participation — that comic reductions of the plays are only part of the evening.

There are three characters on stage, though they are given the names of the actors playing them. "Victor" (Victor Howard) is a phony Shakespeare expert (his certificate from Pre-Eminent Shakespeare is Photoshopped). "Anders" (Anders Carlson) is a loose cannon whose idea of drama is vomiting on the audience. "Gavin" (Gavin Lyall) is sort of the host and peacemaker, who, just before intermission, finds himself alone telling jokes while Victor chases after the rebellious Anders at the airport.

They do get around to parodies of the plays, which depend more on performance than content: Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus as a cooking show, Macbeth on the golf course and Othello as a rap (not the script's best moment). The histories become a football game and, due to their similarities, the comedies all become one play ("Four Weddings and a Transvestite"). The second act is devoted to Hamlet with elaborate audience involvement. Even with the required irreverence, the tone is generally more playful than disdainful.

This show was first developed 27 years ago by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield as the Reduced Shakespeare Company. That production alone ran in London for nine years and there have been many productions since. So the authors of this more recent revision had the benefit of hundreds of audiences to fine-tune a perfect laugh machine. If the highly lubricated opening night audience at North Coast Rep is any proof, it works.

The show requires that the cast be engaging, versatile and quick on their feet. Howard, Carlson and Lyall have that winning combination. There's verbal humor but the show doesn't focus on Shakespeare's language — much of the fun is physical. With David Hamilton's resourceful direction, this trio capers across Calder Johnson's functional, if indeterminate, set (a theater backstage crossed with a child's playroom perhaps) with forays into the audience.

The idea of reducing Shakespeare for comic effect goes back even further than the first version of this play, especially in the UK. This show's Hamlet is not far from Tom Stoppard's 15-minute Hamlet in the early 1970s (except of course for the audience portraying Ophelia's brain). Beyond the Fringe played with the language ("O saucy Worcester!"), as did later Peter Cook and Dudley Moore parodies, while Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and, once again, Tom Stoppard (in Shakespeare in Love) applied aspects of contemporary show biz to the Bard's plays for comic effect.

As advertised, audiences don't need to know Shakespeare's plays in detail to enjoy this show, while the experienced are given a few inside jokes. I especially enjoyed the parodies of acting out the lines with the elaborate gestures that have become virulent in Shakespeare performances.

But does this play make the Bard more accessible, as also advertised? Maybe, in at least one sense. The show seems to get its comic energy less from Shakespeare parody than Shakespeare anxiety — the sense that the Bard is remote and snooty. Release from expected solemnity and feelings of inferiority may allow a more relaxed openness to the plays. (Yet it's interesting that one of the evening's memorable moments is Carlson reciting a classic Shakespeare speech straight.)

The truth is that nobody understands or appreciates every line of every Shakespeare play. Revelations and bright moments of enjoyment are personal, though sometimes greatly helped by a remarkable performance or production. That's one reason people keep producing these same plays and audiences keep going. Shakespeare's plays are more popular now than ever. Although there won't be one at NCRT this year.

Megan Johnson designed the costumes, Calder Johnson the lighting, Pam Service organized the properties, and Howard Lang provided original music. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] continues weekends at NCRT through April 19. There is some bawdiness (though less than in many Shakespeare productions). Junior high and older students should enjoy it, along with adults. 442-6278.

Coming Up: Dell'Arte presents a work-in-progress, Elisabeth's Book, next Thursday through Saturday (April 11-13) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. This original piece uses movement, music and images to tell the story of three women who survive concentration camps and further trials after World War II. Based on a true story and conceived by Joan Schirle, it is a collaboration among performers Schirle, Laura Munoz and Ruxy Cantir, and director Alain Schons (a French designer/director and former director of the Dell'Arte School).

Audiences for this in-progress version will help shape Elisabeth's Book for its official premiere at Dell'Arte in July. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. It is deemed not suitable for young children. 668-5663 ext. 20.

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