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‘The Complete Works’ a Complete Blast

Ted Morrissey

Given the heaviness of the times it seems an especially sagacious choice for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival to begin its 2022 season with the lighthearted and delightfully distracting The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), directed by William Jenkins. The play lovingly parodies all 37 of the Bard’s canonical works in a rollicking romp of about ninety minutes, mixing comedy, music, some audience participation, with even a smidge of serious Shakespeare recitation and some genuine information about the plays and the playwright (along with some farcical misinformation).

Serious Shakespeare aficionados as well as anyone with even a passing knowledge of his plays (which, thanks to high school and Romeo and Juliet, is pretty much everyone) will likely sum up the performance in a single word (or a synonym): fun.

The three-person cast brings back to the Festival stage David Kortemeier and Thomas Anthony Quinn, who performed The Complete Works in 2008 and 2011, and adds the youthful Adonis Perez-Escobar. Those familiar with the show (written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield) know that others can be drafted into the onstage shenanigans (crew, audience members, even, it turns out, the pilots of passing airplanes). Anyone and everyone is fair game, and the more the merrier.

The running motif of the Festival’s production underscores that Kortemeier and Quinn are soon-to-be retirees—“Boomers” as Perez-Escobar dubs them—and it provides many of the laughs. However, the production’s chaotic pace and the actors’ quick-wittedness (emphasized during improvisations especially) belie the running gag and thereby sharpen it. We should all wish for such energy and inventiveness in our golden years.

The Complete Works is based on a standard script but allows for and in fact encourages creative departure from production to production, even from performance to performance. Indeed many of the jokes are based on recent events, local knowledge, and current affairs (some of the references could only have been added in the last week or so). We know that Shakespeare’s King’s Men regularly broke the fourth wall and engaged directly with their audience, and such breakage is a key feature of The Complete Works—always to great effect thanks to the talents of the three actors. During the June 8 performance, a low-flying airplane noisily disrupted the action for several seconds, but the fast-thinking trio managed to turn the unexpected interruption into one of the biggest laughs of the evening.

Kortemeier and Quinn were supposed to reprise The Complete Works in 2020, but the season was canceled due to Covid. This third time is their last, they say, and the show is titled “Dave and Tom’s Swan Song.” As of this writing only four performances remain—June 9 through June 12—and theatergoers should make it a priority to experience their fine work before they exit the Festival stage for truly the final time. The show is a great way to introduce reluctant Bard-watchers to the wonders of Shakespeare.

The Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing production (directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon) begins with a preview performance July 1, and King Lear (Robert Quinlan, dir.) previews July 9. The two plays alternate throughout the summer at Ewing Theater and conclude August 5 and 4, respectively.

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Ted Morrissey‘s novel excerpts, short stories, poems, critical articles, reviews, and translations have appeared in some 100 publications, among them Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, and Southern Humanities Review. His most recent novel, The Artist Spoke, won the Maincrest Media Award in Literary Fiction.

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