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Who’s afraid of the big, bad Bard?

Shakespeare wrote comedies, although perhaps not this outlandish. And he didn’t intend his tragedies to leave people rolling in the aisles.

But the Elmira Theatre Company’s latest production isn’t your usual take on the Bard of Avon – for that, you’ll have to head down the road a bit to Stratford. While drawing on his canon, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) throws in a healthy dollop of Monty Python and Mel Brooks.

Doug McDonald (left), Mike Grant and Gerard Gouthro rehearse a scene from the upcoming ETC production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), which begins its run Sept. 10.

The play – also known as The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged) –manages to compress all 37 of the Bard’s comedies and tragedies into a two-hour romp through the Shakespearean universe.

Given the breadth of the work covered, the on-stage time is by necessity an exercise in organized mayhem. Jumping from play to play – each work is announced – the actors have to move at a torrid pace to cram them all in. Rapid costume changes see three men in tights donning a variety of wigs and hats, grabbing props as they’re needed.

“They’re sweating when they’re done. They’re constantly running, and getting changed quickly for the next scene,” said director Deb Deckert of the pace kept by her cast, Doug McDonald, Mike Grant and Gerard Gouthro.

The manic atmosphere and the large amount of improvisation – there is audience participation – makes this production a foray into somewhat unchartered water for ETC.

“It’s quite different from anything we’ve done before – it’s more than breaking the fourth wall. The guys are out there in the audience – it takes a lot of improv skills. As a director, this has been a stretch for me.”

The job, she admits, is a lot like herding kittens: trying to contain the chaos.

The end product is all about laughs. While the performance will strike home more fully with those who’ve read or seen Shakespeare – and how many of us escaped high school without at least a few of the classics? – that kind of familiarity isn’t necessary.

“It stands on its own,” said Deckert, noting that so many excerpts from Shakespeare have made it into common expressions, becoming part of the lexicon.

Want proof? Finish the following lines: “To be or …” “Friends, Romans, countrymen …” “But soft, what light through yonder …” You probably didn’t have to cast your mind back to high school for those.

For those whose school days left them a bit overwhelmed by Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) provides some comic relief. Not a big fan of a certain play? A fresh take and rapid-fire treatment eliminates that issue.

The play starts with a Romeo and Juliet that’s more farce – men in tights in drag – than star-crossed. Later, Othello is done in rap. The histories – the tales of English kings such as Henry V and Richard III – are covered as a football game, the crown acting as the ball.

Hamlet dominates the second act. The abridged version of the Danish prince’s life deemed so interesting it’s immediately followed by a version at double speed. Then backwards.

Cheeky, yes. But even Shakespeare would likely appreciate the staging, Deckert suggested. Much better than the endless dissecting of his works that goes on in school English classes.

“Shakespeare would be rolling over in his grave if he saw how his [work] is being treated. They’re plays: they’re meant to be performed on stage,” she said.

The Elmira Theatre Company production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) runs Sept. 10-12 and Sept. 16-19. All shows are at 8 p.m., except for the Sunday matinee at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $18, available through the Centre In The Square box office by calling 519-578-1570 or online at www.centre-square.com. All performances are at 76 Howard Ave. in Elmira.

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