Crush Up Your Shakespeare

By Tom Strini

Joe Dempsey, Ernie González and Gerard Neugent play themselves in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), which opened Sunday evening at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. Well, that’s not quite true; the names remain the same, but they’re closer to Curly, Larry and Moe, respectively, than to their real personalities. And I doubt that they’re roommates in real life.

One of them seems to have inherited his grandmother’s home. The kitchen Tom Burch designed for them, with its low-end avocado appliances, speaks to a certain period and aesthetic; Cudahy, maybe, 1961. The boys haven’t settled in enough to have covered over the very busy wallpaper with beer signs and other guy stuff, but they’re working on it. Holly Payne has given them costumes that knuckleheads with boundless enthusiasm and too much time on their hands might have made for themselves. The outfits — dozens of them — must be seen to be believed, but here’s a hint: The bodice of Ophelia’s gown is made from plastic Kohl’s and Target shopping bags. That dress and others look utterly ridiculous on the hulking Dempsey, who plays most of the female roles. They’re funny because the clueless Stooge-Dempsey obviously thinks he looks pretty good.

These actors’ Stooge selves, like their real selves, really do love Shakespeare. They combine their innocent, boneheaded zeal for the bard with their minute attention spans in a show that would cover all 37 plays in under two hours. It seems plausible to them, there being so much Shakespearean redundancy and all. They do get them all in, with plenty of time to reprise Hamlet not once or twice, but thrice, at ever-increasing speeds by way of encore.

The conceit of the show, created and originally performed by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, makes no provision for a fourth wall. The boys are fine with all of us inexplicably crowded into their kitchen. They wade into the audience, mug shamelessly for it and urge on applause. Asides – none by Shakespeare — abound. Many of them feel ad libbed. The Stooge actors and, I suspect, the real actors, take delight in stepping out of character (such as it is) to give one another a hard time.
Dempsey, González and Neugent, directed by Sean Graney, play at high energy and a frenetic pace. If the last joke doesn’t get you, one of the 23 coming in the next 90 seconds will. Barrages of verbal humor, visual humor and physical humor come at you relentlessly. It’s all sorta stupid, really, but it gathers momentum and a crazy logic that become irresistible. The show even wore down my wife, Queen Victoria (catchphrase: We are not amused). By Act 2 she was laughing along with the rest of us lowbrows.

I contend that it takes a certain kind of genius to be this dopey. To wit: Sock puppets act the play within a play in Hamlet. Titus Andronicus becomes a cooking show. Yorick’s skull is a plastic Halloween pumpkin. The history plays are mashed up into a football game. Othello plays out as a rap song, yo.

I know, I know. I gave away some jokes. Never mind; The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) has more. A lot more.