The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspre (Abridged) (Revised) — hereinafter referred to as CWWS for the sake of my fingers — was assembled by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield in the early 1980s. While it did make a nine-year detour to legitimate theater in London, CWWS has lived largely on the edge of legitimacy.
That edginess is key because there are few rules for how the piece is produced and performed. The actors (only three for the 37 plays and 1,122 parts) use their real names and create their own interpretations of the characters. Improvisation is key and local/topical references are freely incorporated. All of which makes CWWS an ideal vehicle for Dell'Arte MFA graduates Kathryn Cesarz (2019) and Oscar Nava (2021), and current Humboldt State University theater student AJ Hempstead.
Nava opens the performance with the newly traditional land acknowledgement and Hempstead, in the guise of a Shakespearean scholar, invites the audience to share their knowledge of Shakespeare's works, only to discover that there's a distinct possibility they know more than he does. Brushing this minor problem aside, he proceeds to welcome us to a world in which married men wear black tights with pride and the Complete Works should be in every hotel room. Eager student Cesarz then reads aloud the results of her Google search into the life of Shakespeare, which unaccountably morphs into Hitler's invasion of Eastern Europe and his mistress Eva Peron. Clearly, it's time for tonight's lesson to commence.
The first play tackled is Romeo and Juliet, in which there is much emoting, some creative wig-switching, a little swordplay, a mishap with the nurse's "breasts," the first instance of Cesarz's key motif for the evening — fake projectile vomiting over the audience — and, of course, death. This all takes far too long (12 minutes), so in the interest of time, Titus Andronicus is reduced to a brief but bloody cooking show with a pile of brains topped with googly eyes passed around the audience.
Then it's on to Othello, introduced by Cesarz bedecked in a necklace of plastic boats (she Googled "moor"). Nava explains the true meaning of the word in this context and invites Hempstead to play Othello, as he is a Black actor. Cesarz then feels obliged to represent the Italian side of the Moorish heritage, which somehow leads to an inordinate number of groan-worthy penis jokes.
Meanwhile, time is passing rapidly and the comedies must be tackled in bulk. The 16 plays are all built on five basic ideas, so why not merge them all into a single play? Now presenting: Four Weddings and a Transvestite. As a result, Cesarz frequently forgets whether she's supposed to be a boy or a girl, while Nava has a lot of fun with a bloody hand, but the plays are all covered in five minutes.
Next, it's off to Scotland for the play that cannot be named, featuring a golfing Macbeth, a red-headed, manic Lady M., and an oversized golf ball masquerading as a decapitated head. Murder leads us seamlessly to Julius Caesar and, logically, on to Antony and Cleopatra (and more projectile vomiting — thank you, asp). After a brief detour into the Apocrypha (the "bad plays"), the histories get the bulk treatment in the guise of a football game, complete with commentators, referees and cheerleaders. Everyone agrees to skip Coriolanus because of the name but they remember they've missed "the big one" — Hamlet (the serious version of which, (co)incidentally, opens at NCRT on July 31). Cesarz, however, has other ideas and refuses to participate, resulting a bravura one-act, one-man performance from Nava.
After the intermission and a brief detour into the sonnets, relative sanity is restored, and a "proper" production of Hamlet can begin. Hempstead channels the prince, resplendent in black velvet and a wig that hovers somewhere between Elvis and James Brown, while Nava milks the feebleness of old Polonius for all it's worth, and Cesarz delves into Ophelia's ego, superego and id with a little help from the audience. Thanks to the poisoned goblet, she gets in one more projectile vomit and the performance wraps up with several increasingly frenetic attempts to do Hamlet in the shortest possible time to meet the deadline.
NCRT's simple stage design brings in the essential elements of any Shakespearean production: an ancient castle, a staircase to a tower, a grave, a large crucifix, stone steps and many doorways to handle all the necessary comings and goings. Plus, of course, a lectern with a reference copy of the real Complete Works — all 6 pounds of it — and a cardboard cut-out bard.
The cast riff and scramble through Shakespeare's assembled works with impressive energy and verbal and physical agility — I was quite exhausted just watching them. And now you can learn everything you need to know about Shakespeare's life work with a lot of fun and for under $20 — plus there are no homework assignments!
NCRT's The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspre (Abridged) (Revised) plays Friday, July 30 and Saturday, July 31 at 2 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 1 at 8 p.m. to a 50 percent capacity audience. Tickets by reservation only (none at door) at www.ncrt.net or by calling 442-6278. Proof of full vaccination or recent negative COVID-19 test required to enter.
Pat Bitton (she/her) is a freelance writer/editor based in Eureka who is theoretically retired but you know how that goes.
HAMLET. The hesitating Dane takes the Nort Coast Repertory Theatre stage at last after a pandemic postponement on Friday, July 20 at 8 p.m. and runs through Aug. 22. Tickets by reservation only (none at door) at www.ncrt.net or by calling 442-6278. Proof of full vaccination or recent negative COVID-19 test required to enter.