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Uneven Troupe Casts a Pox on 'Compleat Shakespeare'


"The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" is a silly joke, and a very funny one at that. Originally performed by its authors, Jess Borgeson, Adam Long and Daniel Singer, it sparkled with inventive ribaldry and intellectual insight into the workings of the Bard's plays.

In just under two hours, the actors run through some of the plays and mention all of them. One of the funniest segments is a football game that does away with all the history plays in one punt. The "Compleat Works" is technically difficult and full of potholes for the unwary performer. When it works, it's a delight.

Under the auspices of the Changing Masks Theater Company at the Gem Theater, it's an entirely different animal than the authors' performance.

One of the big problems in this staging is that the performers know they're being funny. They grin at the audience when they get a laugh, and one of them--director David Wayne Nelson--continually looks at the audience during a punch line and gives a thumbs up and a wink.

Like all comedy, this material has to be done seriously. The play's characters are dedicated to their task. Even the contacts with the audience have to be honest and real. When an actor laughs at the material, the play stops being funny.

Although it looks free-form, it is, after all, a play. And a comedy, and a tightly conceived one. What the present trio of actors, including director Nelson, miss is a solid sense of timing; most of the scenes are a mess.

Pauses destroy the tempo, and the unfortunate set design, with a curtain the actors have to fight their way through, impedes the pace. A large black flat to disappear behind would have been more effective and would help the piece clip along better.

Nelson, as director and actor, usually puts his humor on top of the play's basic humor, and kills a lot of laughs. The laughs he does get clobber the play's laughs.

Howard Cohen, diminutive and vibrant, is often quite amusing but is the most regretful victim of the bad timing. Michael Cunningham is the third member and gets a grateful nod for his sometimes laid-back, restrained moments, which are also fairly realistic and get the laughs in the script.

Also, it might be noted, the houselights don't have to come up every time an actor talks to an audience member. The individual can't be seen anyway, and the wait for the lights to come up and go down puts further holes in the evening's timing.

* "The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)," Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 6 p.m. Ends Aug. 27. $18. (714) 741-9555. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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