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If intelligent laughter matters to you, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] provides it, and in profusion. In the current Actors Comedy Lab production at Raleigh Little Theatre’s Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre, a trio of extravagantly gifted comedians (Izzy Burger, Tracey Phillips and Rebecca Blum) under the inspired direction of Rod Rich does ample justice to the ineffable zaniness of the show’s literate intent.
Unveiled at the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe Festival before settling into a nine-year run(!) at London’s Criterion Theatre, this initial effort of the Reduced Shakespeare Company by its founding members Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield assays the canon in two brief acts. The first covers all save Hamlet, while the second is given over to the melancholy Dane. And while Act Two cannot match the sustained hilarity of Act One, it does lead to an almost literally breathless climax, a pay-off of sublimely harebrained comedic tumult.
A cast of women performing the show does alter, and limit, the still-interesting perception of gender as it existed at the Globe, when the feminine roles were played by boys — perhaps explaining, at least in part, why so many of the girls in Shakespeare’s comedies masquerade as young men. Lost, too, is much of the inherent (and, I believe, intentional) homoeroticism to which these deceptions lead. But when you have a cry of players as exceptional as the one on display here, even this seems, at worst, a minor loss.
Izzy Burger is a delight, all embarrassed shrugs, mugs and grimaces. She’s especially funny as our befuddled host, and, later, as a grotesquely bearded Polonious. Tracey Phillips is joy unconstrained, most notably when spouting a deliberately bad accent or engaging in Stooge-like violence. Best of all is the majestically ridiculous Rebecca Blum. Her pauses are priceless, her dumbfounded moues treasurable, her timing peerless, and her entire aspect utterly adorable. There is more than a trace of both Carol Burnett and Burnett’s patron saint Imogene Coca in her facial expressions, and of Margaret Hamilton in her lower registers and occasional screeches, but the olio itself is sui generis.
The costumes by Jenny Mitchell are often as amusing as the actors. Thomas Mauney’s set is simple yet ingenious, comprising a backdrop of Tudoresque shelves filled with fitting bric-a-brac: scrolls, busts of the playwright, Yorick’s skull, scattered Cliffs’ Notes, the complete Yale Library edition of Shakespeare and other paraphernalia appropriate to the canon. The playing area is decorated with additional Cliffs’. Among Mary Misertino’s often-ingenious props, a comic highlight is a hilariously inapposite Ghost of King Hamlet Rod Rich has directed with admirable swiftness and a flexibility that hews to a rapid pace while allowing his cast the freedom to indulge their comic invention.
As the Bard once noted, “In delay there lies no plenty.” Hie thee hence!
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] runs until Sunday, September 30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.