Leslie Pugmire Hole • Spokesman staff
It’s the theatrical equivalent of a come-to-Jesus meeting. Four dejected high school thespians sit on the end of the stage while their teacher and director lays it out: If they want to pull off their upcoming – and very difficult – performance of a comedic farce that tackles not one, but nearly all 37 of William Shakespeare’s plays, they better get their lines down cold.
“I’m about to kill all of you,” says Phil Neely, Redmond High School drama teacher, quietly. It’s a week until the school’s opening of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged),” a break-neck romp of a comedy that pays tribute to – and mocks – the Bard’s body of works.
“If you are having fun, the audience will have fun,” Neely tells actors Tomi Hollerbach, Daniel Bradley, Brandon DeWeese and Suzette Vieu. “But even though this is supposed to look like improvisation, it’s actually very structured.”
The four-person cast is a departure from the typical Complete Works production, which was written for three actors. In fact, it was written by three actors, founding members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. A warning that often appears with marketing for Complete Works performances says in part the play is “not recommended for people with heart ailments, bladder problems, inner-ear disorders and/or people inclined to motion sickness.” A disclaimer about Shakespeare’s well-known bawdiness is usually included.
The four actors return to the stage.
“Remember, this is Monty Python meets Mel Brooks. Don’t play it so straight – be silly,” Neely says.
Hollerbach rushes on stage with a giant leap, proclaiming “It is I, Omlette, the cheese Danish!” The quartet are working on a section of the play where Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, is condensed to a few short minutes because the actors have run out of time.
Hulking Daniel Bradley is incongruously cast as Ophelia in this three-minute Hamlet. To save time, he portrays his character’s drowning by tossing a glass of water in his face. His falsetto is as counterfeit as the gray beard Vieu slaps on to portray the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
The actors go over the scene again and again, eventually performing it in reverse, complete with backward steps and lines that sound like an alien language from an old Star Trek episode. Each go-through gets a bit better. When DeWeese enters and gets a double-take from the other actors (his line refers to what is supposed to be an odd costume) he reassures them “During the play I’ll be wearing something appropriately ridiculous, don’t worry.”
Neely encourages the actors to speed it up, step on the end of the other actor’s lines and above all – remember where they are supposed to get into the next character. They careen around the stage, exiting and entering, like errant balls in an arcade game.
Behind the curtain, stage manager Allie Casavant and her tech crew will be waiting with props and costume changes for 37 plays worth of characters. And every change needs to take place at lightening speed as the actors shed one 16th-Century persona for another.
“If someone forgets a line, don’t just stand there and look at each other – make something up and make sure it’s funny,” says Neely. He softens and adds “Ask yourself: What do I have in me that’s different, something I can have a lot of fun with?”
The cast moves onto a wickedly funny rap version of Othello, slipping into a syncopated rhythm of body movement, facial expressions and sing-song dialogue.
They nail it after a few run-throughs and are obviously relieved to have one section of the play going smoothly.
Only seven more rehearsals and what will seem like a million costume changes to go.
“Have joy and good hearts,” says Neely at the end of rehearsal. “Have fun.”
If you go
What: The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged)
When: 7 p.m., Feb. 17-19
Where: Clyde Moore Auditorium, Redmond High School
Cost: All tickets $5
Information: 541-923-4800, ext. 2125