BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is one of those shows that theater people love to do, and their enthusiasm shines through as three intrepid actors "spread the holy word of the Bard.''
Dreamed up by its original actor-writers — Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield — the play covers 37 Shakespeare plays in less than two hours of slapstick silliness in the style of a Marx Brothers movie.
Steve Fisher (the bearded, "intellectual'' one), Jonathan Cho (the one in drag much of the time) and Paul McColgan (the "sensible'' one who tries to keep it together, unsuccessfully) are the zany threesome in the Hat Trick Theatre production, now playing at the Eleanor Dempsey Performing Arts Center.
A lot of this play's shtick is foolproof fun, such as condensing all 17 comedies into a single play, or performing King Lear as a football game, or boiling down the 154 sonnets to notes on a 3 by 5 card. Macbeth is sent up with bad Scottish accents and bagpipes.
At times the corniness of Shakespeare (Abridged) gets labored, and the parody shows its age — it premiered in 1987 — in bits like the one riffing on The Two Noble Kinsmen and the Chernobyl disaster.
What makes the show tick is Shakespeare's ubiquitous role in our lives, all those half-remembered speeches from high school English class. Naturally, Hamlet is the creme de la creme of the production, with "get thee to a nunnery,'' "to be or not to be,'' "alas, poor Yorick'' and other phrases of the melancholy Dane that lend themselves so well to sophomoric humor. When McColgan, Fisher and Cho perform the great masterpiece backward in 45 seconds, it's a tour de farce.
Shakespeare (Abridged) is the concluding production in Hat Trick's first season as the resident company of Dempsey Arts Center, which is actually the theater of Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School. This is a brave new experiment to bring a lively young theater company to rural Pasco County, initiated by the school's theater manager, longtime Tampa Bay actor, director and all-around man of the theater, Steve Mountan.
Hat Trick, which previously performed at the Silver Meteor, a gallery in Ybor City with seating for less than 50, has moved up in the world in terms of facilities. The high school theater is well-equipped, though the institutional atmosphere is sterile, and last Friday's turnout of about 30 seemed lost in the 880-seat space. It made for slim pickings in the audience participation scenes of Shakespeare (Abridged).
Can Hat Trick make a go of it here? As this production, directed by Jack Holloway, demonstrates, the company has talent, and its 2010-11 season includes a trio of popular plays: The Importance of Being Earnest, Proof and Noises Off, along with a newer work, Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck.
If nothing else, the Dempsey Arts Center is the only venue in the Tampa Bay area where, when you walk out of the theater and into the night air after a show, you're serenaded by a chorus of bullfrogs from a nearby pond.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.