A Willy Good Time

Those who love Shakespearean drama generally do so because of the writer's mastery of language and his fine understanding of stagecraft -- from dovetailed entrances and exits to unexpected moments of physical humor and witty wordplay. New Heights Theatre's production of The Compleat Works of Wllm Shakespeare will please the Bard's fans and foes alike with its unpretentious comedy and vaudevillian variety. As such, it's a welcome relief from the string of earnestly bad theater that's lately graced New Heights's stage.

Written by Jess Borgeson, Adam Long and Daniel Singer -- the comic trio from Novato, California's Reduced Shakespeare Company -- Compleat Works attempts the lofty goal of abridging most of Shakespeare's 37 plays into one evening of theater. This leads the way, of course, to high camp and melodrama -- a combination that feeds off Shakespeare's lively comic tradition. Predictably, though, it's the tragedies -- Macbeth and Hamlet in particular -- that work best in this Monty Python meets scholarly criticism kind of spoof.

Viciously funny as it is (the play opens with one company member mistaking Hitler's biography for Shakespeare's), this play depends on well-tuned actors to pull off the multitude of costume changes, ridiculous props and overblown misinterpretations (at one point, the slowest member of the ensemble assumes that Othello's characterization as the "Moor of Venice" has something to do with his love for boats). Directed by Claire Hart-Palumbo, who lent Main Street Theater's recent Arcadia a gracious sense of comic timing, this production is springy and wonderfully goofy because of such a cast: Jason Douglas, Mark Roberts and Scott Tesh.

The emcee in Act One, Tesh is a Masterpiece Theatre-like host, book in hand, attempting to narrate the frenzy that Jason and Mark (yes, they use their real names) are making of Romeo and Juliet. Warming up with tai chi and sumo wrestling moves, Douglas and Roberts dive into their twisted, and occasionally bawdy, version of the romance. This includes a number of conventions that set the tone for the rest of the production, such as leaping off-stage in poses worthy of Grecian urns, wearing ill-fitting wigs and interjecting mistakes into the play's purplest passages, most of which happens far too quickly and wittily to be given justice here.

The least effective parody is that of Titus Andronicus, retitled Titus Androgynous and played as a black humor laden cooking show. Earning mostly groans from the audience on opening night, it's the crudest humor this production has to offer, with amputated limbs thrown about, throats slit and heads baked.

The best spoofs rely on audience participation, including the second act's Freudian analysis of Hamlet's Ophelia. Separating the house into three sections, the actors assign an id, ego and superego "cheer" to each group. For the ego section of the audience, the cheer, "Cut the crap, Hamlet, I want babies now," was timed to encourage Ophelia's final scream. It's a cute trick, but last Wednesday night afforded the on-stage ensemble a perk that made this work unusually well: The audience was studded with local actors.

The best part of true parody is that everyone gets skewered -- from scholars and directors to actors themselves. Actors can be petulant little brats, and that side of the craft is well represented in Roberts's tantrum about doing Hamlet. Convinced that Mel Gibson's film version was sufficient, Mark is simply too tired to do the play, and refuses to take part in the parody at the end of the first act. Such childishness translates well into Hamlet's own self-involved rantings, and results in Act Two of the production being a drive-by-the-seat-of-your-pants version of the famous play. Simply put, it's a good time.

Douglas and Roberts are particularly good in encouraging audience response, creating a comedy club atmosphere with their banter and direct contact with the crowd. Is this the same kind of stuff that makes bad theater unwittingly entertaining? Gladly, no. New Heights's production of Compleat Works is silly, but it sacrifices everyone's pretensions, from actors' to audience's, to be a success.

The Compleat Works of Wllm Shakespeare plays through January 5 at New Heights Theatre, 339 West 19th Street, 869-8927.

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Megan Halverson