Story: Three inspired actors decide to distill and condense all of the plays written by William Shakespeare into one, two-act performance. Considering that Hamlet takes up the entire second act, the first half is considerably congested as the lads tromp through The Bard’s comedies, tragedies, histories and “problem plays” on their merry mission.

Highlights: Director Suki Peters’ shrewd wit and imagination are indelibly stamped on this frequently raucous, rambling and zany presentation that is high on the madcap mirth of its trio of players, namely Ben Ritchie, Jamie Kurth and Joshua Nash Payne. All three actors are in rare form, something required to handle the substantial energy load and delivery of lines in the sundry manic situations presented originally by The Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Other Info: Even from the start, Kurth urges the audience to turn down cell phones or, “if you have a pager, throw it away and buy a mobile phone” before the show actually begins. Ritchie appears as a professorial type, a “pre-eminent Shakespearean scholar” complete with black-rimmed glasses and a tweed sport coat with exaggerated elbow patches, thanks to costume designer JC Krajicek. The latter makes sure we can identify who is who throughout the performance by adorning each of the lads in different colored tennis shoes. It’s a nice touch.

Properties designer Chris Jones provides a bevy of laughs strictly with the wide-ranging assortment of chotchke, knickknacks and flotsam that fill the funky set designed by Amanda Handle. A diver’s helmet, a skull or two, Groucho Marx nose, mustache and eyebrows, some cooking utensils and other odd paraphernalia heighten the goofiness factor to humorous effect throughout.

Add Jeff Roberts’ silly sound design, accentuated by the theme from Gilligan’s Island as Kurth does a spot-on impression of Jim Backus as Thurston Howell III, the deliberately fitful lighting provided by Steve Miller that causes Ritchie angst and anxiety and selective fight choreography by Shaun Sheley and the stage is set for hijinks.

The major problem with Complete Works in this or other productions I’ve seen is that it has a tendency to drag in spots. The slapstick humor is effective most of the time, but some of the jokes are beaten close to death and lose their vitality as a result.

In the case of this St. Louis Shakespeare production, however, Peters’ judicious selection of cast members makes for a most engaging evening. Each of the three actors brings a particular brand of humor to the equation. Kurth is the mellowest of the three, usually relying on his concise delivery of lines for effect as he also moderates the more flamboyant actions of his colleagues.

Ritchie is a veteran comedian who utilizes his instincts and expertise to propel various scenes in delicious fashion. He even makes eating a sandwich a hoot as he sits detached from the frenzy involving Kurth and Payne in one scene. Payne has an infectious smile and likable manner that infuse his performance, along with considerable physical schtick such as a propensity to vomit pretty much any time he’s in character. He’s also impressed that Will married Anne Hathaway until Kurth tells him it was a different Anne Hathaway than Catwoman.

The lads have their way with The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus (as a cooking show) and sundry others. The history plays are enacted as a football game, while “The Scottish Play” is truncated down to the pivotal duel between Macbeth and Macduff in exaggerated Scottish accents. The comedies are condensed into one brief scene, since the players tell us that all of The Bard’s comedies were essentially the same.

There’s even an audience participation element as our intrepid performers divide the patrons into four groups encouraging Ophelia to take control of her predicament in scenes from Hamlet, as well as a pair of patrons thrust onto the stage for another comic interlude.

Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield of RSC first performed their antic epic in 1987. It’s just and fitting that St. Louis Shakespeare, relying on Peters’ sound theatrical instincts and the controlled chaos of her cast, delivers a fine rendition of this happy excursion into the classics.

Play: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

Group: St. Louis Shakespeare

Venue: Grandel Theatre

Dates: August 16, 17, 18, 19

Tickets: $15-$25; contact 361-5664 or

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos by Kim Carlson