There are surprises in the Elden Street Players' production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)," which ends Saturday. Not so much with the frequently performed material, which is a scripted play designed to come across as improvisational comedy, but in the performances.
Who knew that company regulars David Sher and Scott Bailey, joined here by newcomer Allen McRae, could be so loose and funny, particularly Sher, who recently has been playing successfully in serious dramas? Bailey was just in Noel Coward's comedy "Blithe Spirit," but that was an exercise in droll wordplay and elegant attitude, which is quite different from "Shakespeare," a lowbrow, rollicking shtick-fest.
Based on a show made famous by California's Reduced Shakespeare Company, the play more or less copies the way the semi-improvisational group performed it circa 1986. However, much latitude is allowed for adding comments on current issues or local references, and there is a significant element of audience participation, so no two performances are the same.
The concept condenses 37 Shakespeare plays into two hours. Shakespeare's works are used merely as starting points for comic takeoffs and many vomit jokes. Bailey, Sher and McRae spend 15 minutes fooling about with the audience at the top of the show before getting to the Bard. Local productions of the show usually fall flat in this opening segment, as it requires performers who can spontaneously react to the audience. The actors follow a basic script, but it can't prepare them for all eventualities.
While improvisational comedy may look easy, it usually succeeds only when performed by experienced practitioners. Because Elden Street's actors have no such background, it is remarkable that they interact with the audience so well and appear spontaneous, particularly Bailey, who plays the role of an authority figure. When several people arrived late at the Industrial Strength Theatre during a recent performance, he skillfully incorporated them into his routine with seemingly ad-libbed comments on the heavy rain and traffic that evening.
But even if you arrive early and avoid sitting in the front row, you're not guaranteed to evade the cast's attentions, as they frequently climb into the steeply raked gallery to either pull you into the action or pretend to vomit on you.
Directed by Holly Harrington, this is mostly high-energy, unsophisticated banter and sight gags. For example, in the twisted "Romeo and Juliet," when Sher's Romeo says to McRae's Juliet, "Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized," McRae's juvenile character focuses on what he hears as "butt love," leading to numerous sophomoric but funny -- dare we say -- cracks.
"Romeo and Juliet" goes on for almost 20 minutes in the first act and "Hamlet" takes up much of the second, which doesn't leave much time for the remaining 35 plays and the sonnets on the bill, meaning some cramming is required. Shakespeare's 16 comedies are melted down into one skit and the sonnets are dealt with in a few throwaway lines. "Richard III" becomes a football game, "Othello" is performed in rap, and "Titus Andronicus" is a blood-soaked TV cooking show. For those who appreciate more subtle humor, there are moments such as when Sher, as the aged Polonius in "Hamlet," spends a long time moving with a walker across the set and the sound of crickets fills the theater.
It's all a lot of fun, and then to really show off, Sher, Bailey and McRae perform it all again, backward. All the world may be a stage, but it is this one where many of the laughs are to be found.
"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" will be performed through June 26 by Elden Street Players at the Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. Showtime 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For tickets, call 703-481-5930. For information, visit www.eldenstreetplayers.org.