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Folks of a generation remember when Reader's Digest came out with their extensive line of "Condensed Books." The idea was that they'd take several of the classics of literature and shorten them considerably to make them, ah ... shorter? And, as critics pointed out, Reader's Digest did so by largely eliminating all the parts that made the works "literary" to begin with.
Well, Westerly's Colonial Theater has a far more entertaining goal in mind when they present "The Complete Works of Williams Shakespeare (Abridged)" as their 23rd annual summer production in Wilcox Park. Yes, in less than two hours, a zealous, erudite and appropriately rapier-witted cast condense all of The Bard's plays and sonnets into one acutely comic presentation.
The show debuts Wednesday and runs until Aug. 27.
How, one wonders, can all 37 plays and 154 sonnets by the greatest writer of all time be neatly condensed into a digestible, one-show portion?
Harland Meltzer, Colonial's producing artistic director, explains, "Writers Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield realized Shakespeare basically had four to five plots for his comedies - and then turned those into 16 plays. Okay, they mashed those all up and did the same for the tragedies - with slightly extended attention paid to 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Hamlet.' They have fun with it, but they touch on everything in all sorts of ways that involve popular culture. 'Othello,' for example, gets a rap treatment."
The whole show is pulled off by three actors who basically storm-troop through the canon in 100 minutes. Colonial veterans Paul Romero and Mark Irish and newcomer Jason Guy star in "Abridged," and Meltzer says they do a tremendous job since all conventional rules of theater go out the window. Part of the construct is that the actors take the stage as themselves and then take on the succession of Shakespearean roles. This gives the production an intimacy and allows the actors to frequently break the fourth wall, addressing the audience and soliciting participation.
Over the course of three brisk acts, each of the plays are at least name-checked, but certain ones, certain characters and/or famous scenes are emphasized for their parodic elements. Much of the second act is devoted to "Hamlet," in part because it gives the three actors an opportunity to switch roles in machine-gun fashion, and the same actor, for example, will be Gertrude and also Polonius and, by the way, Claudius, too.
"What's great is that it's such a loving send-up of Shakespeare," Meltzer says. "Fans of the plays clearly get all the jokes and references but, at the same time, you don't have to be a Shakespearean scholar for it to work. That's part of the idea - to affectionately present the works for an across-the-board audience and maybe cause them to seek out the real plays."
"The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)" is admittedly a departure for the Colonial's typical repertoire fare.
"Originally, we were going to do 'Twelfth Night,'" Meltzer says, "but schedule changes for some of the actors created issues. Our annual summer productions are big fundraisers for us, and we didn't want Wilcox Park to go dark this summer. We realized we could pull ('Abridged') off and produce an entertaining show for the whole family. And, of course, it is tangentially related. (Shakespeare's) name is in the title and there are certainly a lot of his lines in the work - just not in the order he necessarily wrote them."
"The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)," Wilcox Park, downtown Westerly; runs Wed.-Aug. 17; 8 p.m. Tues.-Sun.; free, $10 donation requested; thecolonialgheater.org.