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SCRAMBLING SHAKESPEARE: Rob Walsh, Jonathan Miller, and Jed Peterson (left to right) deliver all 37 of the Bard's plays in less than two hours in 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),' a madcap romp opening Princeton Summer Theater's 2004 season at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 4.

Princeton Summer Theater Opens With "Shakespeare (Abridged)"; Three Thespians Romp Through All 37 Plays at Breakneck Speed

Donald Gilpin

Some purists might have a problem with this one. After all, when three actors present Othello as a hip-hop trio, a backwards version of Hamlet, the bloody Titus Andronicus as a cooking show with the rapist served as the main course and literal "finger" food for the audience, and all 16 Shakespearean comedies combined into one, there might be something lost from the originals. Whether the Bard in his grave is spinning in horror or rolling in laughter is up for question. Beyond question, however, is the fact that if audience members are willing to suspend all expectations of seriousness along with their disbelief, they will find these three young performers very funny and – in a relentless, Monte-Python style – very entertaining.

The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), opening Princeton Summer Theater's season at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, offers an over-the-top spoof of the Bard's revered canon – complete with extravagant wigs, more than thirty costumes, a surprising array of props and ample opportunity for spirited audience participation.

Princeton University sophomore director Marisol Rosa-Shapiro has assembled a likable, talented, and versatile ensemble – Jed Peterson, Jonathan Miller, and Rob Walsh – with first-rate creative production support, especially from hard working designers Liz Berg (costumes) and Jonathan Elliott (props). Reduced Shakespeare Company writers Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield constructed their material artfully. Their original production is still running in London's West End in its eighth year, and this satiric pastiche has been widely and successfully produced in New York and elsewhere.

The action-packed script demands some finely tuned comic timing, a capacity for unlimited and unabashed silliness, a penchant for rapid costume transformations, a certain comic panache, extraordinary energy throughout and – yes – even the ability to communicate Shakespeare's mighty poetic lines with conviction and comprehensibility. The relentless punning, word play and slapstick humor could become tedious, but with Ms. Rosa-Shapiro and her well-rehearsed PST company, Shakespeare (Abridged) is in good hands.

Mr. Peterson, Princeton University junior, presides over the proceedings with poise and wit. He is frequently called on to play the straight man in cajoling his two temperamental colleagues to attend to the task at hand. He also does not hesitate to dive into the roles of a bewigged Romeo, then Juliet's weeping and wailing nurse, an "interpretive dance" of Troilus and Cressida, the Othello rap and an assortment of additional eccentricities.

Mr. Walsh, College of New Jersey sophomore, plays the moody, over-eager junior member of the troupe. Arrayed in colorful dresses and an extravagant red wig, he throws himself into the female tragic roles with great flamboyance and a penchant for histrionically vomiting on the front row – guaranteeing that the tragedies (at least for those beyond the first row) will be more hilarious than the comedies. In his numerous roles, Mr. Walsh exploits to advantage his comic instincts and affinity for slapstick and physical humor.

The third member of this Three Stooges-like trio provides an effective foil to his cohorts. Mr. Miller, Princeton sophomore, specializes in the high style, declamatory mode – providing "erudite' critical commentary, melodramatic soliloquies as Hamlet and other pretentious poses that are hilariously brought down to earth by the inventive antics that surround him. Wild incongruities create much of the humor in this show.

Minor lapses in diction and projection, especially in segments where actors are putting on accents or falsetto voices, caused occasional opening-night difficulties in comprehension, but those glitches should be surmounted by the second weekend of the run.

Additional highlights of the evening include the complete history plays performed as a football game, with the crown as the football (penalty for King Lear: "fictional player on the field"); the "white boys" rap Othello; a five-minute version of Macbeth distinguished by its kilts and absurdly heavy Scottish accents; the medley of all 16 comedies performed with dolls, a potpourri of props, a slew of comical contemporary references and actors in tights, evening jackets, sneakers, fake noses and goggles; and an opportunity for full-scale audience participation: shouting out from their seats, waving arms, running back and forth on stage and shrieking on cue – in a Freudian interpretation of Ophelia and Hamlet's "Get thee to a nunnery!" scene.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is a crowd-pleasing opener for PST's 2004 season. The cleverness of the concept, the wackiness of the whole enterprise, and the engaging amiability of the performers should help almost all audience members to overcome any scruples they might have about the devastation wrought on the sacred Shakespearean canon.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) plays at the Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University, through Sunday, July 4. Call (609) 258-7062 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org for information.

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