In 99 minutes of literary mayhem, three zany young performers conduct a comic assault on 75 characters from 37 Shakespeare plays — and toss in 154 sonnets condensed onto one 3×5 index card — in this schoolboy exercise that earns only passing grades from grownups.
Launching their attack on the Bard with weapons assembled from an arsenal of comic styles that range from burlesque to TV gameshow humor, the trio scores some palpable hits. But measure for measure, the show’s audience success will depend on what grade you’re in.
This antic sendup owes its original comic inspiration to Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, three smart kids from California (now all grown up and working for Disney) who could appreciate both the genius and the absurdity of Shakespeare’s arcane language, complex plots and oversized characters. In the anarchic spirit of smart kids, they took a good look at the entire Shakespearean canon and cut it down to size.
History plays confusing, with all those multigenerational kings battling for the throne? Let them duke out the entire history cycle in one bloody football game! Aren’t the comedies awfully repetitious, with all those missing heirs and lovers in disguise? Scramble them up into a single one-plot-fits-all sketch! Does anybody really understand those clan wars in “Macbeth?” Let the hairy lairds deliver their speeches in incomprehensible Scottish accents!
Much, maybe even all of this inspired nonsense survives in this revival, the show’s third in New York in 10 years (the sendup has been a more enduring hit in London). But comedy never sits still, and it’s only right that director Jeremy Dobrish, who is also the artistic director of the Adobe Theater Co., would put his own spin on the material.
Unfortunately, the updated attitude is sophomoric, tipped off by a rickety set that might have been assembled in high-school shop class and a performance style that’s broad and bawdy, but bereft of wit.
Part of the problem is that the show leads with its weakest material. Warming up the audience with a corny cell-phone joke does not bode well for a show with the chutzpah to take on the world’s greatest dramatist. And an introductory slide-lecture on Shakespeare’s life uses images more suitable to kindergarten cut-and-paste than Monty Python pastiche. It also doesn’t help that the first extended sketch, a caricature of “Romeo and Juliet,” is done in a broad burlesque style that establishes vulgarity as the evening’s dominant comic idiom.
Peter Ackerman and Jeremy Shamos tear into the slapstick physical comedy with relish, and David Turner, in outlandish wig and with a subversive take on cross-dressing, really gives it to Juliet. But once the Three Stooges tone of low comedy is struck — signaled by pneumatic breasts and pig-bladder parts and an overall attitude that language is the enemy — there’s no going back.
Even sketches done up in a strongly individualistic style (“Troilus and Cressida” as performance art, a cool rap “Othello,” a cooking-school version of “Titus Andronicus”) or those with more aspiration to verbal wit (the hilarious backward rendering of Hamlet’s “Be to Not or Be to” soliloquy) are given the broad Minsky’s treatment.
You can still appreciate the original spirit of Long, Singer and Winfield, whose knowledge of Shakespeare gave them the fearlessness to send him up. But the impulse for this revival seems to come out of an attitude that this is “dull, boring stuff” that has to be made funny.