There is a scene in Bag & Baggage’s outdoor production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare *(Abridged) **[Revised] where actors Jacquelle Davis, Janelle Rae and Sammy Rat Rios perform what is best described as a musical autopsy of Othello’s life.
“Othello listened to other fellas/And that’s the thing that made him jealous,” they sing. The lyrics are so hilarious that it takes you a moment to realize that Davis, Rae and Rios are harmonizing perfectly. Their singing is a reminder that great feats of goofiness exist on the border between chaos and discipline.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare dances on that border with grace, deftly telling a story that serves up everything from a battle featuring tin foil swords to a ballgame of kings where a sportscaster cries, “Lear is disqualified and he is not happy about it!” Under the direction of Bag & Baggage artistic director Cassie Greer, the play becomes a Shakespeare sendup alive with both cheekiness and affection, affirming that satire, like imitation, can be a sincere form of flattery.
The original Complete Works of William Shakespeare premiered in 1987 written by the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield. The play has been substantially updated by Bag & Baggage, but the concept remains the same—in less than two hours, three actors blaze through all 37 of the Bard’s plays, turning tragedy into farce and making farce even more farcical.
After an uproarious introduction that confuses Shakespeare with Hitler and Juan Perón, The Complete Works plunges into the plays—and not just unimpeachable masterpieces like Macbeth, but the so-called problem plays like Troilus and Cressida. The performers reenact them speedily (and, in the case of Hamlet, backwards) and revel in gleefully inappropriate revisions, like inserting the aggressively perky Natasha Bedingfield song “Pocketful of Sunshine” into Romeo and Juliet.
Spoofy plays like The Complete Works of William Shakespeare risk falling prey to the facile quality of the worst Saturday Night Live skits and the lamest Monty Python gags. Bag & Baggage’s production is able to nimbly dodge that fate because its performers aren’t just funny—they are ready and willing to forsake straightforward comedy in favor of euphoric lunacy.
For Davis and Rae, that means committing to seriousness in the midst of silliness. To play Ophelia and other Shakespearean heroines, Rae flaunts a hideously puffy blond wig as if it were the epitome of style, while Davis stays laughably stone-faced even as she utters entertainingly out-of-place lines like, “Hamlet is being a prick!”
Rios leaps in a different and equally delightful direction. She’s the biggest goofball of the bunch, a wonderfully kinetic comedian who indulges in the joys of sheer weirdness. The funniest moment in The Complete Works might be when she plays Friar Lawrence as a cloaked creep who flails his legs from side to side and speaks in a sinister voice that inspires another character to compare Lawrence to Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars.
As The Complete Works of William Shakespeare enters its final scenes, it begins to drag. A protracted bit of audience participation doesn’t add much fizz to the jokes, and while the play’s repeated reenactments of Hamlet are clever, they arrive at the exact moment when the play cries out for a snappy climax instead of continuous encores.
Yet an excess of fun is a beautiful problem to have. Like Bag & Baggage’s recent musical Aurelie the Bold, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is an implicit acknowledgement that regular theatergoers have probably seen enough plays that are either literally or metaphorically about COVID-19.
That’s why this production isn’t just theater—it’s a public service. As we reckon with both the trauma of the pandemic and of readapting to “normal” life, we are going to need more plays like it. To quote Juliet, “And joy comes well in such a needy time.”
SEE IT: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare *(Abridged) **[Revised] takes place at Shute Park, 750 SE 8th Ave., Hillsboro, on July 14-15; Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza, 150 E Main St., Hillsboro, on July 17-18; and Hidden Creek Community Center, 5100 NE Hidden Creek Drive, Hillsboro, on July 22-25. 7:30 pm. Free.