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Article updated: 7/4/2013 11:19 AM

Much ado at Metropolis: 'Shakespeare' delivers the laughs

By Scott C. Morgan

The comedy "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" certainly feels like a host production by the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, but it's not.

Playing through Aug. 10, "Shakespeare (Abridged)" is actually the work of the Chicago-based itinerant company Eclectic Full Contact Theatre, which is just finishing up its first three-play season. Yet, the three-man cast and director are all Metropolis veterans who know how to play to the strengths of this Arlington Heights venue. More importantly, these collaborators bring the comedy goods to make "Shakespeare (Abridged)" feel fresh as if they're devising it on the spot, though it probably helps that they're performing the recent revised edition of the show.

Getting the comedy just right is important for "Shakespeare (Abridged)," a much-produced play originally devised by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield more than two decades ago in the U.K. The show ran for nine years in London and has spawned several abridged show sequels (involving topics ranging from The Bible to American History, among others).

The gimmick is improbable: three guys performing Shakespeare's 37 plays in 97 minutes. In actuality, just a title name-check is all that's required for lesser-known plays. Also, the Eclectic production at the Metropolis runs longer than 97 minutes since an intermission was added.

But these are minor quibbles for the folks of Eclectic, since they succeed more often than not at leaving the audience in stitches as they speed through the Bard's literary canon.

Director David Belew turns up trumps with his great cast, all members of the Eclectic ensemble.

Adam Kander is the loopiest one in the bunch, always keen to play the heroines of each play and to incorporate vomiting as much as possible in the show. Michael Woods is great as the self-important "pre-eminent" Shakespearean expert with his bulging blue eyes and disdainful looks of humiliation, while Andrew J. Pond largely serves as the game narrator who tries to keep things apace -- even after a partial cast walkout.

Together, these three goofs work together like comedy clockwork, knowing just how to tease the laughs out of the audience and when to make jokes at their own expense. So even if you've seen the show before and know that "Titus Andronicus" will be presented as a grisly TV cooking show or that "Othello" will get down by being delivered as a rap, these three guys have what it takes to make everything feel like they're experiencing it the first time -- even if Pond had some trouble concealing his own giggles at some parts.

And though everything is supposed to be very seat-of-the-pants, the show's designers have created an appropriately handsome environment for all this silliness. Set and lighting designer Pat Iven has clearly been inspired by the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, while Julane Sullivan has created a closet full of wonderful quick-change costumes that often hang hilariously on the cast (note the dangling breasts in one particular instance when the guys play the girls).

If all Eclectic Full Contact Theatre's shows are as polished as "Shakespeare (Abridged)," then the Metropolis should plan on inviting the company back to share its talent with suburban audiences. Clearly, they're already comfortable in Arlington Heights, and audiences should welcome "Shakespeare (Abridged)" with open arms and grand guffaws.

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