Call it Shakespeare "light." The talented students at Illinois Central College take on the Bard when they present The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged) February 26 through March 6.
ICC Theatre Program Assistant Professor Robin Berkley, who directs the production, has been at the helm of previous "reduced" performances dealing with the Bible and the history of America. "If you've seen any of the 'abridged' plays, you know there's no real plot; it's very fast and free form. The actors have a tremendous amount of room to play with the script and add and subtract with the use of improv. I can say it's Shakespeare at breakneck speed, and all the plays are covered in one-and-a-half hours."
The play takes a few liberties with Shakespeare's work. "It begins with Romeo and Juliet and ends with Hamlet; I might add they have time to do Hamlet four times, including backwards," Berkley said. "Titus is a cooking show, Macbeth is McFunny, and Othello sings-or should I say raps. The histories are all tied up in a football game. It's fast fun for everyone, and the audience participation is great fun. It's a very involving show."
Even if audience members have never seen Shakespeare, the "Compleat" version will be very appealing, she said. "You don't need to know Shakespeare to come and enjoy this show. In fact, as crazy as it sounds, you might even learn a little something about the plots by seeing the show. This is definitely not intimidating Shakespeare. There's something for everyone in the show, and where else will you see Shakespeare done with water guns? I think this is really a great first exposure for those afraid they won't understand Shakespeare or think it's boring. This will give some basic information, and they might venture out to see something else. It's not a bunch of insider jokes-just a bunch of jokes."
It's hard to believe, but the cast for this whirlwind production consists of only three men, Berkley said. "They play all the roles, and they never stop moving. Any actor taking on these roles needs to be confident, quick witted, physical, very creative, and not afraid to make a fool of himself. These are three very talented guys."
Ryan Swearingian is a theatre major who's just one class away from finishing his time at ICC, she said. "He was seen in both of the other reduced plays at ICC. Some of the other plays Ryan has been in at ICC include Deathtrap, The Fantastics, and The Illusion to name a few. Some of the characters Ryan takes on in The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged) include The Narrator, Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, and Hamlet."
Berkley said the second cast member, Alan Walker, is also finishing up his final classes at ICC. "He, too, is a veteran of the reduced plays, seen in The Complete History of America (abridged) as well as Deathtrap, The Illusion, and Cherry Docs. Alan has spent time in Chicago with Second City Improvisation Co. and has done quite a bit of professional work in the theatre. Alan will portray Romeo, the witches in Macbeth, Caesar, Polonius, and Laertes."
Greg Foster, the third cast member, is a second-year theatre major at ICC and will move on to a four-year school soon, Berkley said. "Greg was seen most recently in The Odd Couple and All in the Timing. This is Greg's first experience with the reduced plays, and he's lucky to be playing all the women's roles including Juliet, Lavina, Cleopatra, Gertrude, and Ophelia."
Berkley said she decided to direct this particular play, in part, because of the success the previous abridged plays enjoyed at ICC. "The Complete Word of God (abridged) and The Complete History of America (abridged) were so well received by our audiences, and there's such a broad appeal with these plays. It just made sense to do this one. Our senior audience members and our college student audience like these plays equally well. These days, it's difficult to find a play that doesn't offend somebody-whether the language or the themes-but the abridged plays don't pose that obstacle. They're fun for all, and I can safely say the plays have never failed to send our audience home happy."
She also liked the play because it challenges the actors in so many ways. "They must work on improvisation skills, physical comedy, and timing. These are all basic actor skills. The play is written, and actors learn lines, but there's so much room to veer off script and create for a particular night's audience. Each show is different. In fact, this is a show you could see multiple times and see a moderately different show."
Berkley, who's spent more than five years as a theatre professor at ICC, has directed more than 60 productions-from classical to absurd. She said the best part about directing college students is that they're just beginning the growth process and are fresh. "Everything they learn from you is a building block for their future growth. As an instructor, you have such an obligation to give them a solid foundation to build on. It makes your job as an educator important to what they become in the theatre. College students are usually open to new things and want to be involved; they usually have a lot of energy, which is refreshing. I have to say it's extremely cool to see the lights go on-to watch them get it."
The most challenging part, she said, is closely aligned with the best. "The students don't know much-if anything-about their art as actors, directors, designers, and technicians. So it's much more difficult to get a show strongly developed, and we all have to work much harder. You never get to stop teaching; the teaching goes from the classroom to the rehearsal hall, which slows down the process for development. The students don't know the shorthand of the profession yet and aren't sure what their jobs consist of yet. I also think we have it particularly tough at a two-year school; the students just start to put it together and make breakthroughs, and then they're gone. I sure wish I had them longer. The rewards far outweigh the challenges, though."
She said community college theatre productions typically are underrated by the public, though she isn't sure why. "I guess the actors are young, and many people associate young with unskilled-or not yet skilled. Yes, our students are young, but we hold them to a very high standard. At ICC, we train our students from the outset to work professionally; after all, we're preparing them for a profession-not a hobby. Our designers and directors all have professional backgrounds, and we present four fully produced shows a year and offer a wonderful bargain in season tickets. I challenge people out there to give us a try; I'll happily hold our production values and talent up against other area colleges and theatres. I don't think anyone is going to be sorry they attended."
The Compeat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged) takes place at 8 p.m., February 25 and 26 and March 4 and 5, and at 2:30 p.m., February 27 and March 6. Tickets cost $7 for adults and $5 for seniors and students. For more information, call 694-5136. AA!