PROVO — When I walked into the Echo Theatre, I couldn’t help but be charmed by the earnest, warm-fuzzy feel of the space. This is obviously a new venue, one that is built on the passion and sweat equity of its founders, and one that is still working out some of the bugs.
For that reason, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is a practically perfect show to put in the space. A hilarious comedy where three actors (Christopher Sherwood Davis, Jeffrey Blake and Matthew Boulter) attempt to present the full canon of Shakespeare’s work in under 90 minutes, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) embraces—and thrives on—chaos.
The tone of the show is quickly established in the opening moments when Davis and Blake come out, dressed in their suits and Converse All-Stars, and try to set themselves up as Shakespeare experts about to embark on an impossible feat. A sense of improvisation, the fact that we’re going to “go with the flow” tonight, prevails and the audience is adequately forewarned that this is not your normal “I’m going to sit in the dark and watch you act” kind of night. (Be prepared, if you sit in the front row, you’re going to get very up close and personal with the cast.) However, it’s when they begin their first Shakespeare story (Romeo & Juliet) that the mix of wit, irony and over-the-top humor really comes into its own. Davis and Blake’s rendition of the prologue is a tour de force that pulled me into this exaggerated, high-energy and crazy world where anything can happen—and most often does.
The best moments of the show are when the actors take fiendish delight in melodramatically milking the moment—such as while portraying the nurse and Juliet in Romeo & Juliet, the witches in that Scottish Play, Ophelia and Polonius in Hamlet—while embracing the craziness caused by their performances, the audience and their surroundings. The company highlights their obviously shoestring budget, accentuating the comedy that results from their hilariously awful wigs, amazingly ridiculous D.I.-worthy costumes, and fake-as-can-be props (ingeniously chosen by Nicole Boulter with the notable exception of the delightfully crafted puppets by Dallin Blankenship) and find the humor in the fact that things don’t always go as planned. Though light cues might not always go off at the right time, lines might be flubbed (or just completely missed) and an occasional set piece might fall off, the actors embrace the mishaps and use them to elevate the comedic nature of the performance.
While slightly uneven in the first act, the timing and improvisational skills of the company continued to tighten and elevate throughout the show, culminating with a hilariously engaging second act. Focused on the story of Hamlet, the company is in its element as they successfully bring the entire audience into the action. Through invitation, cajoling, instruction and sometimes downright heckling, the re-creation of the scene where Hamlet commands Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery” and she screams in response is a riot that breaks down all walls between the actors and the audience. In particular, Matthew Boulter (who also directed the production) is in his element as he runs around, dividing the audience into Ophelia’s ego, id and superego, giving everyone a chance to participate. The continual improvement throughout the night inspires great confidence that this is going to be a show that is going to only get better as the company has a chance to relax in the space and get used to working with the audience.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at the Echo Theatre is the type of show that you want to get behind and support. Not only does it highlights the improvisational skills of the company by bringing in many contemporary updates (everything from Kim Kardashian to Justin Bieber to The Bachelorette gets thrown in the mix), it channels the spirit of the Bard by serving up Shakespeare’s greatest stories in some new and hilarious ways—including cooking shows, musical raps, and a history lesson taught through football that every child should learn. But, above all, the unexpected, keep-you-on your-toes hilarity shows the great promise of a performance space that has yet to reach its full potential. And at the end of the night, I hope you will feel, in the words of Davis, that “we really shared something special there.”
Update: This show has been extended to August 4, 2012.