Though inexplicably trailing the arrival of Christmas carols on the radio and seasonal sales in the mall by weeks, if not months, the Delaware Theatre Company nevertheless makes up for precious lost time by throwing itself into the festive spirit with that heartwarming celebration of the holidays, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [REVISED], a fun and clever production whose connection to the Christmas season is so obvious it needs no explanation.
As indicated by the title, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [REVISED] is a revised version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), the seminal work of the renowned Reduced Shakespeare Company (Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield). This update not only continues to showcase the complete works of William Shakespeare in an abridged format, but also includes plenty of timely pop culture jokes and political satire so no one misses being at home watching TV too much.
The expansive cast – including John Zak as Actor 1, John Zak; Jeffrey C. Hawkins as Actor 2, Jeffrey C. Hawkins; and Josh Carpenter as Actor 3, Josh Carpenter – has both excellent comedic timing and an engaging chemistry with one another. Zak pulls off Actor 1’s weird charm with aplomb, balancing his occasional reservations with a childlike enthusiasm and an intense dedication to his idiosyncratic interpretation of each of Shakespeare’s heroines as a deranged regurgitator. Carpenter, meanwhile, shows off a dudely enthusiasm in the under-explored niche of Shakespearean Bro. Hawkins provides the necessary contrast as the straight man, while still exploring the comedic extremes of his “serious nature” with his fierce dedication to tights and stately balletic processions about the stage.
Barbara Hughes’ costume design is very much done in the classical style, pairing black, pink, or yellow non-cross-gartered stockings with white linen shirts, voluminous black velvet breeches slashed with gold, and color-coordinating pairs of traditional Shakespearean Chuck Taylor All-Stars. A variety of luxurious doublets, cloaks, caftans, and truly ugly wigs are swapped out as the actors change roles, giving the imagination free reign – as long as it does not require more than three characters and a dummy on stage or a complete costume change in the speed run of Hamlet.
The scenic design by Stefanie Hansen combines Tudor architecture with the quiet elegance of a gingerbread house. The lovely and omnipresent red, green, and gold scrollwork and wall hangings subtly complement the half-timbering, depressed arches, portrait of Shakespeare, and trompe l'œil library – perhaps too subtly. Fortunately, Carpenter hangs some Christmas lights and gives Shakespeare a Santa hat during intermission, preserving the audience from forgetting what holiday approaches.
Director Steve Tague expertly balances new material with Shakespeare’s text and that of the RSC (the other one). Unlike the latest editions of Apple’s operating systems, all of the updates work well and are very user-friendly. The Christmas tie-ins (from cameos by Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim to the last-minute decorating) are an entertaining running gag while also serving as a foundation for other jokes: when Hawkins melts down in the middle of “To be or not to be,” he ends up pleading “Speak to me, Will! Speak to me!” to Shakespeare’s portrait, only to be answered by blinking Christmas lights and the Stranger Things theme. There is also an unexpected, but not unwelcome, vein of political humor, from mysterious meetings with Russians in the uber-comedy combo to Yorick’s sad state under confused healthcare laws. Though the jokes are up-to-date, the combination of pop culture references and political commentary is itself quite Shakespearean (though much easier to understand without informative footnotes and/or an encyclopedic knowledge of Elizabethan England). However, this does throw into relief one area where the production has not been updated. For a show that explicitly seeks to connect the modern world with Shakespeare through its own idiom and humor, it is very disappointing that its casting practices haven’t kept up with the times: an all-white, all-male cast doesn’t even reflect Delaware’s Shakespeare scene, much less the world’s.
The pacing is for the most part snappy and on-point, though one wishes the too-long dance break to “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” after the Othello rap was shortened and the too-short conclusion lengthened (perhaps with the rest of “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”). Tague and the cast deftly balance the banter and wordplay with physical comedy, encompassing everything from pratfalls to extended action set-pieces, like Hamlet and Laertes’ duel (now accompanied by lightsaber sound effects and the traditional Shakespearean song “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”). The confident performance of the cast is matched by the slick production values (nice work by sound designer John Stovicek and lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin, particularly the pretty blue moment).
Journeying from the 1580s to the 1980s and beyond, the Delaware Theatre Company presents a hilarious and engaging show not just about making fun of, but also having fun with, Shakespeare and his works. Like Rocky IV or Die Hard before it, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [REVISED] fills the audience with holiday cheer and is destined to become a Christmas classic.