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Razing the Bard

All Of Shakespeare's Plays Get Reworked In This Pithy Production

GOOD TO BE THE KING: James Knistle delivers a sword statement.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 10/11/2006

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

By Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield

At the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival through Oct. 29

Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is funnier than it has any right to be. It's an unrelentingly silly show filled with puke jokes and knees to the groin--and the assured cast makes it work.

Written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, the play follows three guys trying to get through the entire works of Shakespeare in one theatrical performance. The result is a mishmash of plays that has enough sly humor to amuse die-hard Bard fanatics and enough broad slapstick to give even non-English speakers reasons to laugh. But describing the play's goings-on in any detail is a bit tricky. The jokes are often hokey and overly broad, and some sound plain painful when written on the page--but it's a testament to how well the BSF pulls off this show that such jokes worked onstage.

BSF artistic director James Kinstle performs alongside Bolton Marsh and Johns Hopkins University graduate Ben Kingsland, whose entire family appeared to be in the audience on opening night. The actors perform under their first names onstage and have ample opportunity to improvise and inject current cultural references into their banter, some of which work better than others: Kinstle pummeling a George W. Bush mask-clad Kingsland is funnier than Kingsland trying to use Nicole Richie's possible eating disorder as a gag.

Along the way the trio performs Romeo and Juliet, imagines Titus Andronicus as a cooking show, and turns Othello into a Beastie Boys-ish rap. Shakespeare's histories are distilled into a football game, with an announcer calling the passing off of the crown and calling a penalty on the fictional King Lear. His comedies are turned into one play, an amusing gambit for people all too familiar with Shakespeare's continual returns to mistaken identities, women dressed as men, and everybody getting married in the end.

Director Tony Tsendeas, who also directed BSF's excellent 2004 production of Julius Caesar, helms this circus, adding bits of sly visual humor and fast pacing that gives the play its full-gallop energy. But it is the actors who make this confection so effective. Kinstle and Marsh have a deadpan confidence that sells even the silliest of shticks, and they feed off the audience wonderfully. During Hamlet, Marsh played beautifully off some incredibly eager audience participation courtesy of Kingsland's family. And do be prepared for audience participation. From my seat I got fake-puked on and handed a piece of "rapist head pie," which I assumed to be cranberry sauce but refrained from taste-testing.

Kingsland, however, lacked his more experienced co-stars' easy stage presence. He tended toward shrillness, serving as a foil for Kinstle and Marsh but also becoming rather irritating. When Marsh called Kingsland out on thinking that all Shakespeare's heroines are nothing more than bad wigs and puking on people, you side with Marsh a bit more than you're meant to. Still, Kingsland hit his stride in the trio's three rapid-fire renditions of Hamlet--one of which unfolded backward. Kingsland saying "Oob!" as the ghost of Hamlet's father actually made me laugh out loud.

BSF's production of the The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is good wacky fun, but one bit of caution. Despite the broad humor, it isn't really a kid-appropriate show: Juliet humps a pew to climax, and some decidedly dirty shadow puppets rate this play PG-13.

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