You can get by just fine if you're a blues singer performing to a mostly empty room of drunks, just as a serious actor can often deliver a stunning performance in front of a tiny, inattentive audience. But in comedy, especially the type of comedy on display in the riotous homage/send-up The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), the give and take between performer and audience member is absolutely essential.
That's what's most missing in this production, an ambitious choice for the Six Chairs & a Couple of Artists theater company. The room itself is so small—40 people, tops—that the audience chain reaction necessary to keep the constant barrage of jokes going is difficult to create. It's a mathematical principle of drama: as you reduce the number of people in the audience, you also reduce the chances that people will be laughing. And, because of a corollary law of drama ("laughter is contagious"), this reduction yields . . . silence. See a show in a audience of thousands, and Bob Hope is funny; see this terrific cast with just 11 other people, and the result is a lot of dead air.
It's a shame because the three actors attempting this wild, 90-minute send-up of the beloved Bard's composite works are very good, and this amusing show is further evidence that this young company (this is its third show) is outlandishly ambitious and energetic. You're laughing half the time, impatient half the time and admiring all the time—this versatile cast works hard to entertain.
Six Chairs' small audience the night these eyes bore witness was hip to Shakespeare, and certainly appreciative; it simply lacked the requisite number of bodies—and therefore energy—to get the comedy going nuclear.
Among the respective bits, what works best are the consolidation of 13 Shakespearean comedies into one stew, the hip-hop Othello, a football version of Shakespearean kings, and a cooking-show treatment of violent tragedies. But the actors do have a tendency to go on too long, and the many Hamlet reinterpretations become tedious without enough audience members batting the ball back. Fin.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at Six Chairs & a Couple of Artists Theater, 1409 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (310) 226-7075. Fridays (July 7, 21, 28), 8 p.m.; Sundays (July 16, 30), 2:30 p.m. Through July 30. $12-$15.