- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Remember when Matrix references were still funny? Back when we still had stuff like retirement savings and increasing property values and pre-flight boarding pat-downs that didn’t involve turning your head and coughing?
Into such a world came The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), a three-person play perfectly lampooning the world’s most famous playwright and all his (alleged) works, from comedy to tragedy. The Reduced Shakespeare Company first produced the irreverent show out of the area in the late ’80s, but the play came to town in 1995, featuring local actor Kevin Harris. The San Luis Obispo incarnation hit its groove in 2001 in showings at the theater space behind the Greyhound station, which included late-night performances that drew in drama geeks, theater lovers, people in search of something different to do in the dark, and, no doubt, a confused person or two trying to buy tickets to Weehawken, N.J.
That’s when I first saw the bizarre, bardy blend of classic theater, pop culture references, and improv.
I remember laughing at its Matrix references. The movie was only two years old then, so the bullet-time-effect gag wasn’t yet worn as thin as onionskin—plus these guys did it live, which was impressive.
I remember a tastelessly funny “Titus Androgynous” cooking show skit that I think went over the head of most of the audience. But who’s seen—or even read—that play about cannibalistic revenge?
There was a play-by-play presentation of Shakespeare’s histories, with the crown—a flimsy bit of Burger King headwear taped around a Frisbee—being passed from king to king, football style. There were lightsabers and Godfather references and humping puppets and audience participation in the form of parts of Ophelia’s mind warring for her attention. (Her biological clock was ticking, after all, and Hamlet certainly wasn’t doing anything to remedy that.)
In short, it’s wonderful. It’s fresh, smart, and funny—the sort of thing you drag your friends to a couple of nights later because they just have to see it. The play appeals to everyone with a pulse and a sense of humor, Shakespeare lover or not.
When I saw that a different company was bringing the Wrks to the Central Coast five or six years later, I told my wife we were going, gleefully anticipating her breathless reaction to the hilarity that would surely ensue.
It didn’t. First, this show was mounted in a park for anyone to see—kids and all—so it was toned down. No puppets humped. They sort of made out, but it wasn’t quite as funny. And nobody giggled when Romeo said, “Call me but love … .” Because, you know, if you think about it, “but” sounds just like “butt.” Tee-hee!
Second, that cast was three women. Now before you get all Stage Beauty on me, let me say: That’s fine. But part of the charm of the show when I first saw it came from the built-in lesson that Shakespearian women were originally played by men in a sort of Elizabethan drag. And the guy who played pretty much all the women in the first Compleat Wrks I saw seemed to have never actually observed a real woman, which makes for a solid running gag.
But now the play is back. For real. And you can tell that this 10th anniversary performance is for real, because Harris, now managing artistic director at SLO Little Theatre, is in it again, giving heft to the revamped tagline: “Older. Fatter. Funnier.”
It fits, because I saw Harris once in public, years after I’d seen the first show, and I recognized him. “He looks like that guy from the Shakespeare play,” I thought, “only he’s … .”
Well, you read the tagline.
Fortunately, even if Harris and his cohorts—Bob Peterson and Jack Grigoli are joining him for this presentation—aren’t timeless, Shakespeare is. His works still resonate with audiences today. From his early life in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was born in 15Diggety9—seriously, who cares? If you don’t already know about Shakespeare’s life, you’re not going to learn about it in New Times. And if you do already know about it, I don’t need to be telling it to you all over again.
I’ll leave that to the guys at SLO Little Theatre, who will do it funnier—and more quickly—than I ever could.
Executive Editor Ryan Miller has played Macbeth—twice! By the pricking of your thumbs, send something wicked to firstname.lastname@example.org.