“Everyone has an idea of what Shakespeare is,” announces Angie Flynn-McIver, director of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) — a collaborative effort between local professional troupes North Carolina Stage Company and Flat Rock Playhouse.
“It’s guys in tights,” she continues.
“That’s us,” deadpans actor Damian Duke Domingue.
But the point of Complete Works is that it isn’t what you’d expect. Created more than two decades ago by The Reduced Shakespeare Company — a team of three actors — the play originated as a condensed version of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.
The Othello part — which can be pretty heavy even for diehard fans — is performed as a rap. By three self-described honkies, no less. “Now Othello loved Desi” — that would be Desdemona — “like Adonis loved Venus/ And Desi loved Othello ‘cuz he had a big … sword.”
“Hopefully someone could see it and get over their paranoia of a full Shakespeare play,” offers Charlie McIver, one of the show’s actors. McIver and Flynn-McIver, the husband-wife force behind NCSC, came to Asheville from New York, where they had a “pretty broad experience with doing Shakespeare plays.” But despite the couple’s level of comfort with the material, they can relate to the idea of Shakespeare-phobia.
“This really works for people who’ve never read or seen a Shakespeare play before,” Flynn-McIver explains. “It’s very physical, very contemporary.”
“And that’s why I wanted to do this for the high-school students,” interjects actor Scott Treadway. Treadway and Domingue are both members of the Actors’ Equity Association, cast with Flat Rock Playhouse, and this collaboration with NCSC allows the two companies to share both show credits and production costs. Once Complete Works finishes its run at NCSC, the play will go to Flat Rock for a series of morning shows aimed at school groups.
“I’m looking forward to those morning shows because those kids are going to eat this up,” Treadway adds.
But just because Complete Works takes some liberties doesn’t mean it’s way off base. Think of the play as a set of comical Cliffs notes — it condenses tricky Shakespearean plots for Bard-fearing viewers while hopefully whetting their appetite for the real thing.
“I think people will see something in there that will make them think, ‘Oh, that’s what that play is about. I want to see that one,'” muses Treadway. And being the complete works, the show offers a taste of, well, all of Shakespeare’s plays … that’s 37, to be exact.
Still, there’s no need to break out in a cold sweat at the prospect of countless thees and thous. The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s creation is as much a three-ring circus as an “out, out damned spot” dirge.
“I like the opportunity to turn Shakespeare on its ear,” McIver reveals.
” … And the football part,” Flynn-McIver adds.
“It doesn’t take itself too seriously,” she points out.
But Flynn-McIver isn’t going to brush the play off as fluff, either. “I think people find that when they really hear the words, it surprises them,” she says, relating an experience where she happened to hear some interesting words herself — coming from two high schoolers taking in a MacBeth performance.
It was the mention of a particular body part that piqued their interest.
“I didn’t know nipple was a Shakespearean word,” Flynn-McIver heard the one teenager say to his friend.
And they were hooked.
“It’s alive,” says Domingue. “In this play [we] throw the language ball out to the audience and they have to volley it back.”
Don’t worry — this doesn’t require athletic prowess. Just a willingness to shout out answers, and, the cast hopes, get a little rowdy.
Remember: This is fun.
Though a brand of fun surprisingly grounded in tradition, at that. “People tell me you really have to make Shakespeare accessible to a modern audience — you have to do something to it,” says McIver, recalling one of the Bard’s plays redone with a Volkswagen bus on stage. “I don’t agree. The plays are good enough on their own — that’s why they’ve existed 500 years.”
But no one’s calling Complete Works the definitive way to do Shakespeare. In fact, NCSC isn’t even proclaiming this show a product of the great playwright.
“It’s really its own play,” Flynn-McIver states.
“It’s just about language,” McIver adds.