If brevity is the soul of wit, it explains why "The Daily Show" is doing really, really well and Ulysses is not on everyone's nightstand. Or at least it explains why The Reduced Shakespeare Company found a winning franchise in its Complete Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged). More than a decade ago, the founding trio of RSC created their signature work, which evolved from quickie renditions of Romeo and Juliet performed on a California beach. Now Complete Works has a permanent presence in London and New York, touring casts bring the work to stages everywhere -- including the Flynn Center -- and RSC continues to condense other epic stories, such as the history of the U.S. and the Bible.
The works are smartly hilarious and, of course, fast-paced. So fast that the occasional raunchy aside sails over the heads of small children while they're still laughing at the silly costumes, ridiculous wigs and over-the-top improv. While a moderate familiarity with Shakespeare probably enhances enjoyment of Complete Works, first-graders find it screamingly funny, and even the most sullen teenager can enjoy the play's unfettered irreverence. Et voilà -- perfect family entertainment.
That formula certainly worked last week at the Vergennes Opera House: Addison County's brand-new Augenblick Theatre Company did Reduced Shakespeare proud in their debut three-night run of Complete Works, produced and directed by Stacy Reid Erickson. Actors Jory Raphael (Erickson's husband), Matt Schlein and Tim Andrews demonstrated that zipping through all 37 of the Bard's plays in under two hours is not for the faint of heart or the physically unfit. Nor for anyone with a shred of inhibition.
After a hammy, flight-attendant-meets-evangelist intro, Complete Works begins with a 35-minute Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet essentially comprises the second act of the show -- and includes an interactive "workshop" with Ophelia's id, ego and superego. Imagine an audience chanting on command "Cut the crap; my biological clock is ticking and I want babies now!"
In between those two classics, the Augen-blick cast makes mincemeat of the rest of Shakespeare's oeuvre (somber scholars may not want to watch). Quite a few of the plays get very short shrift: the histories, for example. They're simply too boring. The 16 comedies are compacted into a single, 10-minute sitcom called The Love Boat Goes to Verona. Titus Andronicus -- from Shakespeare's "blood and guts" period -- is served up as a TV cooking show. With "apologies for being honkies," the Augenblick three deliver Othello in rap -- with oversized, bling-bling chains and backwards baseball caps tossed over their basic outfits of knicker-length cargos, blousy white shirts, black tights and Converse high-tops.
With such full-throttle humor, it's only afterwards you realize the actors have demonstrated an impressive command of the Bard's actual text. Of course, Elizabethan dialogue goes down easy when Tybalt is dressed as Darth Vader, Richard III is the "hunchback" in a pickup football game, and Juliet's poison is a bottle of Nyquil. And when the actors slip in a malapropism like "A nose by any other name ..."
Keeping a straight face in this show has got to be a lot harder than memorizing the zillions of lines. Schlein, who sometimes has the narrator/MC role, recalls Harry Shearer (This Is Spinal Tap) in looks, intoning voice and deadpan control. Raphael resembles a cross between Matt Damon and Jerry Lewis, with the latter's large mouth, immensely expressive face and gift for physical comedy. His portrayal of screaming damsels gives new meaning to "unhinged." Though a degree less manic, the innocent-looking Andrews is equal to the task of being funny, and he reveals a charming vulnerability.
It's a stretch to imagine any of these guys being serious, but Erickson says Augenblick will consider dramatic works -- even "by-the-book" Shakespeare -- in the future. For now the company has booked Complete Works this summer at the Basin Harbor Club and is looking for more venues for the show around Vermont. Though it's not strictly community theater, Augenblick's mission is to "serve our immediate community and surrounding area" with works that "fit the demographic," says Erickson. This will include some arts-education programming at the Vergennes Opera House, where she's the rentals manager, as well as regionally relevant plays. "We want to develop our own snapshot of life in Vermont," Erickson says, "through the avenue of theater."
If Augenblick can, as they put it, "make musty, 400-year-old plays relevant to a modern audience," aythg is psbl.