The Bard is busting out all over at the Kennedy Center. Joining the exuberant production of “Kiss Me, Kate” (based on “Taming of the Shrew”) is the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” a Ph.D.’s-worth of classic plays presented in 97 minutes.
Yes, you read that correctly. All 37 of Shakespeare’s works, not to mention the sonnets, are rendered at a hilarious, hyper-speed pace. Time even is left over for encores, in this case, three different renditions of “Hamlet”: fast, faster and backward.
Purists may think that what the Reduced Shakespeare Company is doing is an affront to English arts and letters. Fiddlesticks, as Will himself might say.
The troupe obviously must know its Shakespeare in order to distill the Bard’s plays comically and economically, down to pithy skits. The audience also has to be somewhat well-versed on the dramatist to understand the jokes, which it does. The actors seemed surprised at the laughs they got describing “King John” as “a play about a hunchback” (that would be “Richard III”). They probably didn’t know that the Shakespeare Theatre did an excellent production of “King John” a few seasons ago.
The Wednesday night performance was packed with children and teen-agers, all having a knockabout good time. A particularly heartening sight was a row of boys about 8 or 9 years old rocking with laughter and so enthralled with the show they jumped onstage afterward and peered behind the curtain to see where the magic went.
“Dude, this isn’t like television. I can see you, too,” actor Matt Rippy said with glee to a junior audience member who was returning goofy faces to the company onstage.
The humor is largely sophomoric, but why get haughty? The Reduced troupe — the talented Mr. Rippy, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor — does “Othello” as a rap song, rhyming Othello with “lime Jell-O.” The actors parody “Titus Andronicus” as a gruesome cooking show for “gore-mets” and performs “Macbeth” with accents as thick as haggis pudding.
The history plays are condensed into a football game that passes a crown instead of a pigskin and has Cordelia going long and monarchs poisoned at the 30-yard line. The comedies are smushed into a single play, albeit one that features myriad sets of cross-dressing identical twins who get shipwrecked on an island and then spend the night in an enchanted wood before being reunited and wed to their true loves by a benevolent duke.
Mr. Martin entertains the audience before intermission with an exhibition of fire-eating, but not before he arranges his features in a puddle of funny faces. His foils are the straight man Mr. Tichenor, who tries to inject a little dignity into the proceedings but comes up short every time, and Mr. Rippy, who exudes puppy-dog bounciness and energy.
The second act is devoted entirely to “Hamlet,” and whoever thinks this play is gloomy should see the Reduced Shakespeare version. It features Hamlet (Mr. Tichenor) showing his madness by shouting, “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” The audience gets to express the conflicting voices in Ophelia’s head by performing overlapping cheers, the cacophony of which prompts Ophelia (played by a volunteer) to emit a scream worthy of Janet Leigh in “Psycho.”
The play-within-a-play is done with amorous hand puppets. Ophelia drowns herself by throwing a tankard of water in her face, and Gertrude has volleyball cleavage. Needless to say, this isn’t your father’s “Hamlet.”
The spirit of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s rendition of the canon can be expressed in one sentence: May the Bard be with you.
* * * 1/2
WHAT: “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Aug. 12
WHERE: The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS