Complete Works Brings Out the Bard’s Bawd

Spencer D. Christensen, John William Watkins, Christopher Peltier

By James E. Trainor III
Photo By Bob Goodfellow

Iowa City – The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] is a loving send-up of our culture’s most beloved playwright, penned by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. With a text updated from its original 1987 production to keep its humor current, three actors (Spencer D. Christensen, Christopher Peltier, and John William Watkins) slam through the entire Shakespearean canon in roughly two hours, with plenty of bawdy humor, hilarious sight gags, and amusing misinterpretations along the way. The show is playing now in Lower City Park, under the direction of Ron Clark.

The show is part classical acting, part improv and audience participation, and part anarchic sketch comedy, and it requires a lot of its actors. These three are definitely up to the challenge. John William Watkins has a hilarious deadpan stare and a brilliant sense of comic timing. He knows how to play with the audience, sharing the absurdity of the moment with us while never breaking “character.” He is the most fun when left alone onstage, terrified because the other “actors” have abandoned him, and trying to kill time. This section has a number of fun bits that Watkins carries through with commitment and skill.

Spencer D. Christensen has tireless energy and a very broad range, creating many fun characters. He comes on as a “preeminent Shakespeare scholar” and treats us to a smart (but filthy) rant about Shakespeare’s productivity; ten minutes later he’s a loud, lowbrow Titus Andronicus hosting a revenge-themed cooking show. When the “show” stumbles and the “actors” argue about the best way to present Shakespeare, his responses are very true-to-life, which keeps the comedy very lively.

Christopher Peltier’s boyish charm completes this trio, and the playfulness he brings to the stage draws us in to this wacky world. His excitement is infectious, whether he’s hamming up Shakespeare’s greatest heroines or whether he’s leading an impromptu workshop of Ophelia’s scream. He draws on audience energy to keep a bit going in a really endearing way.

While Complete Works is full of witty nuggets for hardcore Shakespeare fans, much of its humor comes from its reckless irreverence, its juvenile joy at boisterous physical comedy and bawdy body humor. Ron Clark’s direction does a great job of bringing this silliness to the fore, and the naughtiness of the Bard is certainly a highlight here. There’s nowhere these three won’t go for a joke, and the absolute abandon is freeing. The pace itself seems to struggle a bit near the beginning, but it really gets rolling near the end of the first act, and the second act is a non-stop laugh ride.

The design of Complete Works is very effective. Jenny Nutting Kelchen’s costumes are colorful and efficient, turning this three performers into a wide array of different characters both male and female. The attention to detail adds a lot of texture to the story (when Peltier comes back at the top of the first act, for instance, we know by his outfit that he stopped at the gift shop when attempting to book a plane out of town). The layering allows for the frequent transitions to happen frequently, and the entire build is riddled with clever sight gags. Josh Christoffersen’s set, which is colorful and minimalist, allows all this to fit in a tiny area, leaving a wide open space in which to play the show. David Thayer’s lighting design allows us to visit the varied emotional realms that Shakespeare frequents, while Drew Bielinski’s sound design is fantastic at punctuating a gag with just the right noise or sound clip.

The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abriged) [revised] is loads of fun whether you come for the Shakespeare, the comedy, or both. It’s performed by excellent actors on the same beautiful stage in Lower City Park where Riverside has been bringing you outdoor classics for years. In runs in repertory with Othello through July 13; do yourself a favor and go check it out. More information here.

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