There is no artistic experience quite like going to the theatre. Each performance of a show functions as a unique entity, and there is a challenge in recreating it night after night with consistency. Part of this challenge naturally involves exploration of the many ways in which the audience can connect with the living, breathing actors who are the true substance of the play. At its best, a show can engage with the spectator in intimate ways that no other medium can match. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] — which played on Feb. 25 through 27 and March 4 and 5 at the Flex Theatre in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts — takes full advantage of these theatrical possibilities to construct a vibrant comedy that not only invites the spectator to examine the nature of their gaze, but interact directly with the events onstage. The audience is presented with a rare opportunity to engage with the actors in a way that both captures the immediacy and importance of the present moment and inspires awareness of the unifying potential of theatre.
Shakespeare is one of the towering giants of the Western canon, and his influence pervades everything from high art to pop culture. It is easy to construct a false idea of his plays, stemming from the notion that each is a work of unparalleled genius. From the very beginning, this production smashes any idea that Shakespeare must be discussed with reverence, or that his plays are in any way accurate depictions of reality. This disconnect is highlighted by the actors stated goal to give us all of Shakespeare in a mere 97 minutes. The stage mimics an old fashioned theatre such as the Globe, complete with birdshit stains on a painted wooden stage. Watching over it all is a portrait of Shakespeare, clearly aghast at seeing his body of work being violated right before his eyes. The actors —Ezioma Asonye ’16, Christian Kelly ’16, Jacob Kuhn ’18, Julie Locker ’16 and Sam Morrison ’17 — begin by acknowledging the silliness of Shakespearean scholarship with a framing device where they explain that they are academics and that this is a serious work, while they make it abundantly clear that they are actually complete frauds who know about as much as we do. But that is not going to stop them from a full-throttle exploration of all the bawdy, gory, sensual delight that the Bard has to offer. In the tradition of Shakespeare himself, everything is a metaphor, everything is a spectacle, everything is vibrant and completely self-obsessed.
In a discussion with the director — Visiting Lecture Jeffrey Guyton, Performing Media and Arts — he explained to me that he wanted this production to mirror what seeing Shakespeare must have been like when these plays were contemporary. There is a painting by Peter Brueghel the Younger called “A Village Fair” which depicts the hustle and bustle of the crowded, messy lives people led in that time. The theatre is at the center of the painting, but it is not the focus. The frame is crowded with life being lived, and hints at the fact that what happens onstage is no more important and theatrical than what occurs in every corner of our lives. The theatre was not the center of their existence at that time, but it was a hub around which the human experience revolved. It was a place where people could come and go as they pleased, a special moment where their vanities, joys, insecurities and fears could be embodied in front of them rather than in them, a place where they would see things that would both distract from and make them question their lives outside the theatre.
Every aspect of the production was focused on expanding the events of the stage outside of the traditional bubble of modern theatre and returning to a time when the audience was just as important as the play. Whether the actors were picking fights with, insulting or hitting on audience members, forcing unwilling victims onstage only to make fun of them, or even threatening to end the performance and storming out of the theater, the production did not break the fourth wall so much as it expanded the stage to encompass the entire room. The actors do not make jokes so much as they completely deconstruct the idea of humor. They argue amongst themselves about how exactly the show should precede, they patronize and plead, worry and wonder. They even make some of it up as they go along.
Despite some of the deeper themes which it touched on, on the whole the play is an exercise in pure fun. If you are not at the very least intrigued at the idea of seeing a play that has a hip-hop Othello, a cooking show where the main dish is human head pie, a very bearded, very unladylike Juliet, Macbeth in a kilt with an awful Scottish accent, Hamlet in reverse and at least five masturbation jokes, then I can say with confidence that this is not the play for you. Guyton expressed his sincere hope to me that, apart from any political or social agenda, the play would be a gift to the audience. In this writer’s humble opinion The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] is not only a gift in terms of providing a diversion from real life, it is a challenge to our comfortable notions of what theatre is capable of.
James Frichner is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.