Shaky Shakespeare

Changing Masks is the gypsy troupe of Orange County theater companies. For five years, it has bounced around the county, surfacing once a year at venues as varied as a Laguna Beach nightclub and a Newport Beach church. For its current production of The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), it's renting space at the Gem Theater, one of two theaters operated by the Grove Theater Center in Garden Grove.

The lack of permanent space has paid off for the company: it doesn't have to churn out play after crappy play in order to pay the bills. Such past productions as Glengarry Glen Rossand Hospitality Suitehave been excellent, suggesting that this company excels at gritty dramas about people in moments of crisis.

But this wheezing wreck of a production doesn't play to the company's strengths. Featuring three actors cramming 38 of Shakespeare's works into 90 minutes, the play is designed to be a wild slapstick ride. But there's no real attempt by its creators to offer insight or commentary on Shakespeare. Instead, it's a series of sketches ranging from the bloody Titus Andronicus turned into a cooking show to a white-rap version of Othello. It's no better and no worse than any halfway decent TV sketch-comedy show, the absence of skill and wit back-filled by a never-ending barrage of unfunny gags and improv-like bits.

Get three actors with great chemistry, timing and energy, and you might squeeze from this script a play that feels uproarious and frenetic. Unfortunately, this production just feels flat in the hands of these performers (David Wayne Nelson, Mike Cunningham and Howard Cohen). They're tongue-tied. They drop props. Their costumes look like something discovered in a dark corner of the backstage area just before the curtain rose.

Most distressing is that the actors don't put out the same energy. Only Cohen seems to possess the blend of comic timing and stage smarts needed to make the material work. Nelson (who also directs) constantly resorts to annoying squeals, like the worst kind of straight-guy-playing-gay. Cunningham displays all the animation of something taxidermied.

Originally written and performed by three guys who were hopefully much funnier than this, the play is supposed to feel loose and ready to blow apart. But it's not supposed to feel unrehearsed. There's a fine line between chaos organized toward an impending disaster and this sort of bad theater. But sometimes, as in this show, that thin line can feel like a huge gap.

THE COMPLEAT WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE—ABRIDGED by Changing Masks at Garden grove Theater, 11943 saint mark St., Garden Grove, (714) 741-9555. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through Aug. 27. $15-$18.


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