Fun decidedly unabridged in Rep’s Shakespeare sendup

By Mike Fischer, Special to the Journal Sentinel

Defending adaptations of Shakespeare, wildly inventive theater director Sean Graney points out that before 1800, all the great playwrights – including the Bard himself – were adapters, intent on setting actors loose by liberating the scripts they used. “But the bottom-line” reason for adapting, Graney adds, “is I want the audience to have a good time.”

Graney was speaking of his marvelously bent 2010 version of “The Comedy of Errors” for Chicago’s Court Theatre, which had me laughing from start to finish.

But Graney could just as easily have been explaining why he is directing the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s just-opened production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, in which three actors serve up all 37 Shakespeare plays in under two hours.

The comedies and romances are reduced to one play, with the excuse being that they all recycle the same story anyway. The histories become a quick gridiron classic, in which the English crown replaces a football, while various royals joust for power. That leaves plenty of time for tackling the easily parodied tragedies.

Joe Dempsey, Ernie González and Gerard Neugent – who was memorable in a 2001 production of “Complete Works” at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre – get right to work, with raunchy and politically incorrect humor that would have made the bawdy Bard proud.

We’re treated to a rap version of “Othello,” a “Macbeth” that sends up “Wicked” and a “Romeo and Juliet” that rhymes “scenes of timeless romance” with “inside Juliet’s pants.” Bloody “Titus Andronicus” becomes a cooking show, featuring a cross between Julia Child and Mrs. Lovett from “Sweeney Todd.”

The entire second act is reserved for “Hamlet,” which is eventually boiled down to a one-minute version before being performed backward. It’s much harder than it looks.

That’s true of many of this show’s capers, but Graney’s cast makes them all look easy, while working through a dizzying succession of quick-changes, pratfalls, backward stumbles and fights.

Holly Payne’s colorful and deliberately ridiculous costumes complement a barrage of sight gags that are always loopy and sometimes smart; one, for example, illustrates how the initially innocuous and pint-size ghost of Hamlet’s father morphs into the towering figure who consumes his son’s mind.

Not everything in this show works. The humor can be just plain stupid. A protracted stint of audience participation, involving Ophelia’s subconscious, falls flat.

But Will’s jokes don’t always land, either, and priggish Bardolaters pretending otherwise will miss the point: This “Complete Works” delivers a palpable hit.