LENOX -- Imagine seeing Hamlet performed in 43 seconds -- backwards. That's exactly what three Shakespeare & Company actors will do as they stage "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." The comedy presents all of Shakespeare's 37 plays in less than two hours, accompanied by a healthy dose of wit and laughter.
Charles Sedgwick Hall, Josh Aaron McCabe, and Ryan Winkles will take on more than 750 classic roles between them.
"It's fun to take the seriousness out of Shakespeare," Hall said. "But even in the scenes where we mock his plays, there's still gravity to them."
They present brooding tragedies in thoroughly tongue-in-check scenarios, with "Othello" as a rap and Shakespeare's goriest play, "Titus Andronicus," as a cooking show. "Romeo and Juliet" becomes a short slapstick farce, but the majority of the dialogue is Shakespeare's original text.
"For those who don't know Shakespeare's work, it will be entertaining. Some people will take it at face value, but people who really know Shakespeare will get all of the insider jokes," McCabe said.
The play, originally written by Jess Winfield, Adam Long and Daniel Singer of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, has the same laugh-out-loud feel as the work of a court jester. Fittingly, Winfield, Long and Singer began their Shakespearean careers at Renaissance fairs.
"It's affectionate at heart and written by passionate devotees to Shakespeare," said director Jonathan Croy. "It's not ‘let's make fun of Shakespeare for two hours.
Croy has acted in the play himself three times before, though he said this show will be completely different from any other performance the Company has put on.
"I don't feel haunted by the way we did it before; maybe it's because we're constantly going at the same scripts at Shakespeare & Company. If I were to insist on doing the show the exact same way it wouldn't work -- the challenge and delight is finding this trio's own sense of humor," he said.
Hall, who plays Titus as one of his many roles, said he enjoys the challenge of finding a balance of comedy within the script without taking away from Shakespeare's work.
"I try to take some of the horror out of that scene," he explained. "I've been going on YouTube and looking up idiosyncrasies of chefs, like Julia Childs and Emeril, to take the sting out of it. What I like about Titus is finding that fine line between seriousness and comedy."
Because the play is fast-paced and open for on-the-spot improvisations, each performance will change nightly, Winkles said.
"Once you throw in all the costumes and props and an audience, the show could change night and day. The first two weeks there will probably be a new element every day," he said. "This is the kind of play where if someone's cell phone goes off, everyone will know. We'll make sure everyone will know."
McCabe added, "If something happens [in the audience] and we don't react to it, it's like something is missing. It's a different kind of problem than normal -- less of a panic situation with a more fun solution. We can make fun of things together with the audience, including each other."
The string of play after play of different genres and settings can often be confusing, Winkles said, but the nature of the show is extremely forgiving.
"The nice part is, if I forget what comes next during a show, I can turn to Josh and ask ‘What's next?'" he joked with a smile.
All three actors have worked together many times in their careers at Shakespeare & Company, as well as with their director.
"Charles and I have worked together since 1984, in all kinds of productions like ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream' and ‘Romeo and Juliet,' " Croy said. "And it seems like I can't get away from those two," he joked, motioning to Winkles and McCabe.
Croy praised the three actors, adding that they helped to build level of community within the company.
"We spend a lot of time laughing [at rehearsals,]" he said. "I think the show is going to be a really good time."
The close relationship between director and actors has afforded for an infinite amount of experimentation at rehearsals.
"The way Jon directs is a loose room. We have all kinds of leash to play," McCabe said. "We learn what silly things just come up versus what actually can become a part of the show. We try to stick with things that move the story forward versus stopping the action."
Winkles said while their own humor has become part of the play, they won't be sure of how to perform it until they get an audience reaction.
"It's a tricky thing. We can rehearse this and that, but we always ask ourselves, ‘Will the audience laugh?' " he explained.
McCabe nodded in agreement and added, "The show won't really happen until there's an audience."
If you go...
What: 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)'
When: Through Aug. 24
Where: Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
Admission: $19.50 to $64.50