(August 1, 2008)

Shakespeare alla Groucho

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Modern-day interpreters of Shakespeare have taken to plopping the bard down in all sorts of contemporary locales: "The Tempest" in Siberia, "Romeo + Juliet" in Havana.

The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has taken the entire canon, all 37 plays, and placed it in another Marxist state - a Groucho Marxist state.

"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" is a madcap whirlwind of wigs, crowns, kneepads and running shoes. It's part marathon, part sprint, part Groucho, Chico and Harpo.

Director Terrence O'Brien has assembled a formidable trio - Noel Velez, Christopher V. Edwards and Jason O'Connell (playing Noel, Chris and Jason) - to tell the tale, ably assisted by Katharine Abbruzzese and a wheelbarrow of props.

Velez and Edwards are festival favorites; O'Connell makes an impressive debut here.

You don't have to know Shakespeare to appreciate their work here, but if you do, you'll get more of the inside jokes.

"The Complete Works" is in a limited run - in repertory with "Cymbeline" and "Twelfth Night" - with seven performances between now and Aug. 28. An extra performance has been added at 7 p.m. Aug. 26.

The festival is presented on a bluff overlooking the Hudson, so consider this the Bluff Notes version of Shakespeare.

Of course, O'Brien and his cast cut corners - "King Lear" might easily take twice as long than the 2-hour-15-minute "Complete Works" - but they do it all with a wink and a nod: "Othello" is done as a rap song and "Titus Andronicus" is a cooking show a la Rachael Ray. Yum-o!

Since, they conclude, all of Shakespeare's comedies are pretty much the same, they roll all 16 into one, titled "The Comedy of Two Well-Measured Gentleman Lost in the Merry Wives of Venice on a Midsummer's Twelfth Night in Winter That Ends Well" or "Cymbeline Taming Pericles the Merchant in the Tempest of Love As Much As You Like It for Nothing That Ends Well."

With a cast of three and dozens of plays to cover, it's an exercise in multitasking.

Velez begins the evening as a stuffed-shirt academic and is quickly drawn into the action, playing the play's chief narrator and Hamlet, among others.

Edwards, who oversees the festival's educational-outreach arm and was an oily Richard III last summer, plays everyone from Juliet's nurse to Romeo to, yes, Richard III.

O'Connell is a revelation, playing Shakespeare's women with a ditzy Valley Girl voice ("Oh, hi. I'm Juliet."). He can channel Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carol Channing at the drop of a hat.

By the end of Act 1, caked in dirt, the three discover they've covered 36 plays in about an hour.

Act 2 is devoted to that last work, a little play called "Hamlet" and, after intermission and after threatening to cover Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, it's on to the great Dane.

True to the spirit of the evening, the Prince of Denmark's story becomes an exercise in audience participation that, beyond the laughs, gives insight into the characters and the acting process.

Those insights are prompted by the evening's chief clown, O'Connell, who - with the audience's help - delves into what it takes to breathe life into Ophelia.

Then, in one of the evening's most affecting moments, O'Connell delivers Hamlet's heartfelt "What a piece of work is a man" speech so sublimely it's like hearing it for the first time. The comedian drops the comedy and delivers the line with a purity and sincerity that lingers long after the mayhem resumes.

If it hadn't been written by California's Reduced Shakespeare Company, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" might easily have been written by the always inventive Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. It's certainly in keeping with O'Brien & Co.'s emphasis on character, words and performance.

It's smart, fast and thoroughly accessible.

The curtain call, which must be seen to be fully appreciated, demonstrates the considerable talents on display under the tent at Boscobel this summer.

They all hit their Marx.

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