Shakespeare takes a wild, wacky ride in WCT's 'Complete works'
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published Feb. 5, 2018
If you think “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” at Waukesha Civic Theatre is anything like any Shakespeare play you’ve every scene, you’d be quite wrong.
Granted, you will hear some of Shakespeare’s well-known lines such as “Parting is such sweet sorrow” from “Romeo and Juliet” and a whole host of nuggets from “Hamlet” including “To be or not to be” and “Something is rotten in Denmark.” But beyond that, the parody speeds along with Three Stooges-like slapstick adding currency with references ranging from Netflix and texting to Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods. The performers’ “personal” commentary, such as calling Shakespeare’s layers in Hamlet “sucky,” is interspersed with the references.
The show, written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, romps among the Bard’s 37 comedies, tragedies and histories with glee.
Under the direction of Dustin J. Martin, WCT’s trio of actors -- Nicholas Callan Haubner, JJ Gatesman and Jillian Smith -- handle the hilarious script, and audience participation, wonderfully. The opening night audience showed their appreciation with laughter, groans and, when called upon, good-natured amateur performances.
The play's the audience
The three stars have to handle a sea of lines – some modern, some Shakespearean, in wacky combinations – plus loads of physicality, costume changes, and quick thinking to react to the audience and improvised lines. The trio are totally up to the challenge and appear to be having the time of their lives.
Even before the show starts, Haubner appeals to members of the audience to come forth to play The Bard (no lines, just looking thoughtful at his writing desk) for a few moments at the opening of the show. One of three volunteers is chosen based upon audience applause after a round of questioning.
Haubner and company play themselves and open the show with some background on the playwright. Gatesman comes out of the audience (actually, he was sitting right next to me) to read from his cell phone as the explanation melds into a biography of Adolf Hitler before returning to Shakespeare.
And so starts the wild ride that sends the audience hurtling through Shakespeare as if on a carnival ride.
First up is “Romeo and Juliet,” which includes Juliet (Gatesman with ill-fitting blond wig) playing the famous balcony scene on Haubner’s shoulders and also includes the trio rocking out with a “Romeo and Juliet are Dead” heavy metal tune.
Haubner plays the Gory Gourmet in “Titus Andronicus,” with unlikely lines such as “I even chopped up some Ladies’ Fingers” and “It’s finger lickin’ good.” You get the idea.
Next up is one of the highlights of the first act: a rap song – hilariously performed by the trio – to summarize “Othello”
All of the comedies are homogenized (which is explained by saying they all have similar elements – mistaken identities, ships in storms, etc.) into a silly puppet show presented by Gatesman and Smith that includes Barbie dolls. “Macbeth” becomes two Scottish golfers, complete with kilts and tams, who duel with their clubs.
During the “Julius Caesar” skit, Gatesman – whose characters have a penchant for feigning vomiting during the show, often in the audience --wonders “What the hell is the Ides of March?”
Little known of Shakespeare’s plays, such as “Troilus and Cressida” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” also merit mentions. Gatesman turns the latter play into “The Two Mobile Kinsmen” with references to technology moguls Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
Gatesman questions Shakespeare’s histories, wondering why Shakespeare can’t be more like sports. And voila! King Lear, Richard II and Henry VIII are suddenly playing football in a rollicking scene.
The true highlight of the show is Act II, which features a retelling of “Hamlet.” This version includes Haubner’s big speech, which turns into an homage to “General Hospital” and its star characters Luke and Laura, as well as a “Psycho”-like stabbing scene complete with flickering lighting and sound effects.
Especially effective was one audience member’s playing of Ophelia, while the rest of the audience plays her subconscious, shouting out a trio of issues she’s dealing with until the stage Ophelia finally screams. It’s great fun, and a great way to understand one of Shakespeare’s best-known characters.
Putting a cherry on the Shakespeare sundae is a trio of warp speed presentations of the trio’s “Hamlet,” fast, faster, then backwards, much like the endings of Ken Ludwig’s plays “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Leading Ladies.”
All three performers are perfectly in tune with the tone of the show and play off each other wonderfully to maximize the humor.
Haubner, as always, is totally in control of his character – a supposed Shakespeare scholar. His marvelous stage presence helps keep the show together throughout the madcap adventures. He can give a scene gravitas one minute, and quickly segue into a parody to great effect.
Gatesman is lithe and long-limbed, which adds to his character’s many physical scenes that he performs splendidly. Gatesman is not only running, jumping and dying all over the stage, but in the audience as well. His Fitbit would truly get a workout.
Smith also doesn’t miss a beat of the fast-paced comedy. Especially enjoyable is her phone conversation with her two stage compadres, who have gone missing after Gatesman becomes nervous about presenting Shakespeare’s greatest work and runs out of the theater.
A simple set in rich blue hues by scenic designer Michael Talaska gives a fine backdrop for the performers, while Chris Meissner’s creative lighting enhances each scene.
So even if you’re not into Shakespeare, you’ll find this show a lot of fun. Plus, you’ll probably learn a few things about The Bard and his plays. If you like Shakespeare, you’ll appreciate the gags and the humor even more.
If you go
Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre
What: “The Complete Works of Williams Shakespeare, Abridged”
When: Through Feb. 18
Where: 264 W. Main St., Waukesha
Tickets/Info: 262-547-0708; www.waukeshacivictheatre.org