Shakespeare, unhinged

Theatre in the Rough brings Shakespeare to the masses

Posted: Thursday, October 01, 2009

I t would be tough to argue that Shakespeare's works are undeserving of the reverence shown to them in the literary world. But it's possible that the lofty position they've been granted has obscured their origins as the people's plays, and their broad-based, unscholarly appeal.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" the latest production by Theatre in the Rough, turns the idea of scholarly reverence on its head. With a silliness reminiscent of Monty Python, actors Aaron Elmore, Ed Christian and Doniece Gott race through (or at least mention) all 37 of Shakespeare's plays in less than two hours, poking fun at hero-worship of the Bard. In skits ranging from a cooking show to a football game, the three actors change roles with dizzying speed, acquiring and dropping accents (most memorably the exaggerated Scottish brogues in Macbeth), and fighting and dropping dead repeatedly, in a production that is both a parody and an homage.

While the play can hardly be said to remain true to the storylines of most of the plays, it does retain a Shakespearean feel, most obviously in its humor, which involves lots of dirty jokes and puns (and Elmore in drag). and the dialog, which is full of the quick-witted exchanges the plays are known for.

"(Theater-goers of Shakespeare's day) entertained each other with language," Christian said. "And it was valued, apparently, to be witty, to be able to turn a phrase, pick up on someone else's phrase and turn it into something else and you see this right here in our production."

The vibrant, hyperactive performance of the "Complete Works" also serves as a reminder of how Shakespeare's works are meant to be enjoyed: not as dry texts to be read but as plays to be watched.

"If you present them as theater, if that's what they are, then I think people have a lot better chance of relating to the work than if it's presented as literature," Christian said. "Of course it's literature, but if it's something to read, it's just very hard to get through."

He benefited, he said, from in-class readings of the text aloud in high school, an experience that helped foster his love for the plays.

Theater in the Rough co-founder Elmore agreed.

"It was never meant to be read, it was never meant to be experienced in that way," Elmore said. "So every sound, every word, the cadence, the rhythm, the words themselves, the word choice, the word order, all of that contributes not to some giant ideal of poetry but to character, and to serve the story."

Elmore's first glimpse of a play came not on the page but at the tail-end of a television production of Macbeth when he was 9 or 10.

"It was the last scene; it was the fight, and these two guys were just beating the hell out of each other with giant broadswords," Elmore said. "And I was in love from that moment on. I thought 'This is the greatest thing ive ever seen in my life.' And then he enters at the end with the severed head, and by that time I was like, 'wow.'"

Gott's first interaction with the texts was unusual. As a new kid in Juneau at age 11, having recently relocated from Ketchikan, Gott used the huge book of the "Complete Works" as a type of security blanket, hefting it around with her so that she'd appear smarter.

"I wasn't reading it," she said. "I would open it and stare at it. But I wasn't actually reading it."

Later on, in high school, she was asked to take part in Theater in the Rough's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and she was hooked. She's since become a regular troupe member.

All three actors bring their love of and familiarity with Shakespeare to the "Complete Works," but the play isn't just for Shakespeare fans. It's silliness can be appreciated by anybody. Written in 1987 by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the "Complete Works" was the longest running comedy in London, and grew out of a goofy, reduced version of Romeo and Juliet and of Hamlet that the three-man company performed at Renaissance Fairs, Christian said.

"Then they decided, 'oh lets do them all,' which of course is silly, but it's the conceit the show revolves around," he said.

The "Collective Works" was first produced by Theatre in the Rough in 2003 under the direction of company co-founder Katie Jensen. This time Elmore directs, and though the play remains basically the same, Gott said there are small changes that are very "Elmorian" in nature, such as the puppets used in the sequence devoted to Shakepeare's comedies, which are treated as a group.

The three actors play themselves, with all their insecurities and weaknesses as Shakespearian actors presented in exaggerated form. Toward the end of the play, when he's told he must perform in "Hamlet," Elmore bolts from the stage. In another scene, Christian folds under the pressure of being forced to deliver the famous "To be or not to be" speech. The enormity of Shakespeare's greatness can be seen as overwhelming for those who try to do it justice, but here it is a way to unite actor and audience in a common experience.

Theatre in the Rough has developed a reputation for producing shows that encourage an enjoyment of Shakespeare's works, and they do this partly by removing the barriers of stuffy formality. Though this isn't a Shakespeare play, it still may have this effect.

• Contact Arts & Culture editor Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or

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