Belly Up to the Bard

After 20 years, my dream has come true.

No, not the one where I come to school for a test I never studied for and then realize I’m in flagrant violation of the dress code. Different dream.

This one began with a chance purchase of an oddly-titled script in a college bookstore. Now it’s coming to fruition amidst a torrent of sight gags, word play and utter ridiculousness. A tribute, really, to a master of the hilarious and bizarre.

Right, Master Shakespeare?

OK, OK, I know. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged),” our newest comedy at the Longmont Theatre Company, bears about as much resemblance to the stagecraft of Laurence Olivier as I do to the physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s the beauty of it, really. This is Shakespeare as it might have been done by Monty Python and the Marx Brothers, with a little Saturday Night Live thrown in for good measure.

It’s irreverent. It’s absurd. It’s three men blasting through the canon with a buzz saw like the hero in a zombie flick, and leaving about as much standing.

And somehow, I think the Bard of Avon would have laughed his head off. Once the migraine cleared up, anyway.

That’s not because the show’s true to the text. (Heavens, no.) But it’s true to the life.

Maybe I should explain.

A lot of times, Shakespeare’s plays get treated like museum pieces: Dust off the icons, admire the filigree and keep everything on a nice, safe pedestal. They’re works to be studied, venerated, stuffed and mounted.

Now mind you, I admire the man’s work. I consider his writing some of the most beautiful in the English language. And the details certainly bear study, if only to discover what “fardels” actually are.

But Shakespeare wasn’t writing for textbooks. Shakespeare was writing for people. Rich people, poor people, anyone who could pay for a seat (or a patronage). And he played to that audience as surely as any modern-day Hollywood schlockmeister.

Bad puns? Check. Blood and gore? Check. Soap operas, mistaken identities and jokes about bodily functions? Check, check, and most definitely check. (Take a fresh read through Macbeth if you don’t believe me on that last one, where a porter hilariously laments how too much wine “provokes the desire but takes away the performance.”)

Yes, he wanted people to think. And part of the way he did that was by also making them laugh, wince, and shudder. Many of his tales had been told before; by adding his own twists, touches, and jokes, he could make his audience really hear them and consider them as something new.

That kind of re-transformation can be vital and not just in Shakespeare. Any time we give something a set-apart status – the Founding Fathers, a sacred work, a loved one, the 1927 New York Yankees – we risk taking them for granted. We memorize a headline, or quote the words without the music. As a minister of mine used to say about the Easter story, we already know the end, and so we lose the fear and apprehension shared by those who didn’t know how all this was going to come out.

We stop understanding and see only what we expect to see.

By shaking up those expectations, we wake up our minds. And maybe even laugh ourselves silly in the process.

Let go. Have fun. And if I’ve got you curious, come on down and see what our warped minds have come up with. ( Show details can be seen at www.longmonttheatre.org.) As Master Shakespeare used to say, the play’s the thing.

What kind of thing? Thereby hangs a tale …

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