DORSET — A playwright who's been dead for 404 years. Three actors. Thirty-several plays. And here's the catch: two hours or less to bang 'em all out.
Pfffft! No problem.
So thinks director Todd Hjelt of the Dorset Players, a man who has made meals of quick thinking and on-stage improvisation. Hjelt is leading the charge in the Players' special, irreverent three-show Valentine's Day weekend presentation of "The Complete Work of William Shakespeare (Abridged)," by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield.
Hjelt said that the Players have considered staging this play for several years, and he pounced to direct it.
The show is a comedic mix of Shakespeare's plays, comedic improvisation, actor discourse, anachronistic reference, and audience participation. It ran for a record nine years in London's West End, and is globally beloved as one of the finest comedies on stage today.
The so-called invisible fourth wall between stage and audience is nonexistent in "The Complete Works ," with the actors speaking directly to the audience during much of the play. Some scenes include jokes, slapstick, contemporary references and audience participation,
Hjelt admitted that staging the show in Dorset took some logistics.
"I started looking for a group of people I thought could do the show and would be fun to play with, since most of this project boils down to the ability to really play with each other on stage," Hjelt gasped, catching his breath even more than his three actors. "Schedules and an opening on the calendar lent itself to this Valentine's Day spot. My hope is that after this weekend we will be able to remount this show, or take it to additional locations as a bit of theater outreach."
The production stars three Players veterans: Mike Cutler, Chris Restino and Joe Mozer. Their excitement was palpable while waiting for a turn to speak.
Restino said that for some reason, he ended up playing many female roles, and was finding it more fun than he anticipated. To this end, he added that he "really enjoyed the costumes and props" which were all specifically designed to have a timely effect on each scene, and gender change.
In all, Restino is playing more than 20 roles from the 37 plays.
"Playing Juliet from `Romeo and Juliet' is fun," Restino said, with wig still on. "Ha! I feel bad for Mike [Cutler] having to profess his love to me. This is the second show in which I've played a woman Mike's character was romantically interested in, so he's probably used to it by now!"
For his part, Cutler laughed while noting that he is being placed in a position to have male-female sparks flying with his longtime buddy, while playing 14 parts of his own, to boot.
"Taking on Romeo is my favorite part, because I get to play opposite the beautiful Juliet portrayed by Chris Restino," Cutler snickered. "Seeing [Restino] all dolled up as Juliet, well, how could you not fall in love with him? I mean her."
Cutler went on to say that periodically the actors must also take a timeout and play themselves in brief audience-interaction spurts. This presented them with fresh meat for their acting chops.
"We use the stage to escape and become someone else for a while," Cutler said. "So when [Hjelt] says `This part is just Mike, not a character,' you think for a moment and ask yourself, `How do I act like me?'"
Mozer — who is playing nine parts — nodded in agreement, saying that that plots and representation twists have made the play not just fun, but something of a hook on which a contemporary audience can grasp hold, regardless of its affinity — or not — for the Bard.
"Doing `Titus Andronicus' as a Julia Child-inspired cooking show is absurd and disturbing and just a heck of a lot of fun," Mozer said. "`Hamlet' is also great, because I read it so long ago. It's really nice to reprise the role in an over-dramatic way instead of straightforward. It's a way of getting people who don't want to sit down and sift through Shakespearian dialogue to enjoy the story and get them interested in these classic pieces."
This limited engagement of "The Complete Works " will consist of three shows, one each on Friday and Saturday night, and a Sunday matinee. The production runs just under two hours, which includes a 15-minute intermission.
In all, before heading back to rehearsals, Cutler seemed to sum up the coming limited engagement by saying that if fun and laughter is the goal, people should flock to Dorset to get some.
"The one thing that's been said is that if you like Shakespeare, you will like this show, but if you hate Shakespeare, you will love this show," Cutler chortled. "Personally, I think everyone will love this show. It's fantastically witty, full of slapstick, and hysterical costumes. What more could you ask for?"
Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @TellyHalkias