The Arkansas Repertory Theatre closes out its 2014 season with a production that touches on Shakespeare's entire body of drama in a little over an hour and a half of stage time. The promo art for "The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)" says it all — the iconic engraving of the playwright defaced, that thinly mustachioed Elizabethan poker face topped by a big red clown nose.
Still, comedy or not, the concept triggers a reflexive spasm of insecurity for some of us. Do I have to know all 37 plays in order to get it? What if I've read, uh, significantly fewer?
Don't worry. Even if your last direct exposure to the Shakespeare canon was a forced march through "Julius Caesar" back in 10th grade English, you're still welcome at "Wllm Shkspr," which opens June 6. Actors Avery Clark and Ethan Paulini — both of whom have performed at the Rep five times in the past few years — recently sat down with the Times to assuage your fears. (The third member of the cast, Patrick Halley, was at a doctor's appointment.)
"It may actually be more fun not to know Shakespeare," Clark said. "If you know the plays, you get the inside jokes. If you don't know them, you get to see how ridiculous they really are ... it's poking fun at him as much as it's honoring him." The result is both parody and tribute, a "love letter to Shakespeare" that's ultimately accessible to anybody.
"I really think kids would love it. It's a great show to bring a kid who's interested in theater especially," Clark said. "If I had seen this show in junior high or high school, I would have loved Shakespeare. I didn't like Shakespeare till I was, like, out of college."
And look at him now. A Fort Smith native and Fayetteville grad, Clark's previous performances at the Rep include the titular leads in 2010's "Hamlet" and 2012's "Henry V." Dark and heavy roles, to be sure — which makes them all the better to be lampooned.
"I'm kind of the straight man," he explained. "[Because] I played Hamlet here four years ago, I'm also poking fun at myself. I discuss my reviews and stuff on stage."
That is, the three actors play themselves in "Wllm Shkspr." The conceit is that the trio is traveling to the Rep for a performance when their truck breaks down in Stuttgart. Naturally, they decide to put on a show right then and there for the townsfolk (meaning you, audience member).
"We're three people trying to do all the Shakespeare plays who don't know them very well," Clark said. "Like, for 'Macbeth', we have a really bad Scottish accent, because we don't know what else to do. That's what 'Macbeth' is to us — it's bad Scottish accents. We just put 'Mac' in front of everything and roll our Rs a lot."
"The characters are trying to find their own way into [the material], the way the audience would be," Paulini added.
Paulini's career has tended toward somewhat lighter fare, including the Rep's production of "Avenue Q" in 2013. Again, that presents an opportunity for self-parody: in "Wllm Shkspr," Paulini-the-character knows almost nothing about Shakespeare. He sprints through about 35 roles over the course of the night, racing through costume changes, mangling Shakespearean dialogue and providing a foil to Clark's intellectual pretensions.
"You get caught up in the academia," he told Clark during the interview. "I get caught up in vomit and wigs."
It's fun but deceptively tough to play a skewed version of yourself on stage, Paulini said.
"In most shows, you get to hide behind a character, and here you really don't. Even when you're playing the character, it's Ethan playing Gertrude and Avery playing Hamlet, not necessarily Hamlet or Gertrude."
Clark and Paulini describe Patrick Halley, the third actor, as the MC of the evening — "the engine that keeps us moving forward." Of the three, Paulini said, Halley is also the most adept at improv, which is a small but crucial component of the show.
"A solid 10 percent is based on what the audience gives us, and what the other actors give us," Paulini said. "Things change every day and it's kind of nice to have that open-ended liberty."
Though the other 90 percent of "Wllm Shkspr" is rehearsed, the writing isn't static. The three actors and Rep director Nicole Capri have refreshed the script to add current events, pop culture references, and "plenty of Arkansas jokes," Clark said. That's by design of the original writers of the play, who fully encourage theater companies who purchase the rights to the script to run wild with revisions. Clark, who has met the writers, describes them as "total California surfer dudes."
"I think they kind of said, 'We want to do a show the way that British people think American actors perform Shakespeare,'" he said.
The perceived ostentation of the Bard's work — including, of course, the pretension of that name, "the Bard" — can repel or intimidate audiences, even the theatrically inclined (such as young Avery Clark). But Shakespeare wrote to entertain and move the public at large, not a narrow cultural elite. That's exactly why the universe of tropes and phrases he invented has come to suffuse the English language so thoroughly. As gratuitously silly as "Wllm Shkspr" may be, part of the point of the play is to deflate the sonorous pomp that surrounds Shakespeare's legacy and expose a bit of the vitality beneath, in all its beauty and coarseness.
"Back in Shakespeare's time, his most popular play was 'Titus Andronicus,' which was just a bloodbath. It's just blood everywhere," Clark noted. Indeed, "Titus Andronicus" is filled with as much gore as a Tarantino movie; it's an unhinged spiral of revenge that culminates in the title character grinding the bones of two of his enemies into flour ... which is then baked into a pie for their mother.
"We do it as a cooking show," Clark said proudly.
Breaking and remaking that overly hallowed material, drawing out its latent camp and silliness, and, above all, playing with the stuff — that might be the best tribute possible to Shakespeare.
"The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)" runs through June 29. Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings. Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $30 in advance, or $25 to $40 at the door; kids' tickets are half off. The Rep's Producing Artistic Director Bob Hupp will host a panel discussion with the play's three leads at noon Thursday, June 5, at the Clinton School of Public Service.