Better than the Bard: A 'compleat' review of River City Players' newest production

Friday, August 18, 2006
Juliet, played by Bryan Parker, made her yearnings for Romeo known during an act from Tuesday's dress rehearsal of the River City Player's production of "The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr" at the Cape Girardeau Yacht Club. (Don Frazier)

In its opening lines the River City Players' newest production, "The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)" (yes, the spelling is correct). Ryan Heslinga promises the audience something "unprecedented in theater."

A performance that will capture "the towering grandeur" that is the complete works of William Shakespeare.

Of course, he and the rest of the cast and crew know the production won't live up to those words in the hearts of the Bard's most hard-core, scholarly fans. In fact, those people will probably see this production as sacrilege.

But you don't have to love Shakespeare to ride this laugh machine all the way to funnytown. You just have to watch and listen because "The Compleat Wrks" is the funniest performance out of River City Players in a long time.

Using the fertile ground of Shakespeare's massive portfolio, three comic actors go on a romp through the tragedies, comedies and whatever-else the Bard created all those years ago. The whole time they keep the work fresh and relevant to today's audience through 90-minutes of slapstick, gags and witty one-liners that never cease.

As Bryan Parker, one third of the on-stage wit (Heslinga and Bart Elfrink are the other two thirds), tells a fellow player at one point: "I told those guys back there I would not do dry, boring, vomitless Shakespeare for these people."

He doesn't. Especially not the "vomitless" part.

Whenever Parker enters the stage, you can bet some silly-string vomit is going to fly into the audience sometime soon. Or maybe some water will propel through the air. It's just his way of spicing up Shakespeare, and it works to great effect.

Going into detail about each element that makes the RCP performance of "Compleat Wrks" such a great comic feat would be nearly impossible. From the delivery of the lines to the audience interaction, the outrageous costuming and jokes that include Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney, everything about the play is funny.

The fun gets started when Parker reads his short biography of Shakespeare, making sure to include the important parts where the Bard invaded Poland using the Nazi war machine.

Next comes Heslinga and Parker acting out, with the utmost in effeminate overkill, several parts of "Romeo and Juliet."

The humor isn't high-brow. In fact, in many parts it's simply juvenile.

An example: Heslinga, as Romeo, says to Parker, as Juliet, "Call me but love."

Parker's reply -- a Beavis-and-Butthead snicker as he says "butt love."

If you can't appreciate that humor, you don't know what comedy is.

There are more sophisticated gags as well, such as the cooking show version of the early tragedy "Titus Andronicus." Elfrink plays Titus as he instructs his audience how to make human head pie. He has the passion of a madman and the charisma of Emeril Lagasse. When he comes on stage it sounds like he says "Titus Androgynous." You be the judge.

Another must-see is the old school rap version of "Othello." Watch out for the sex jokes in this one.

Then there's the abbreviated "Macbeth" in which the actors show off their over-the-top Scottish accents. Parker sounds like a drunk Sean Connery, Heslinga sounds like something akin to a leprechaun and Elfrink's R's roll like bowling balls.

The strength of "The Compleat Wrks" is, throughout, the comic chemistry of its cast. They aren't quite the Marx Brothers, but Heslinga, Parker and Elfrink are probably the funniest comedy trio in Cape Girardeau.

But be prepared. If you go see "The Compleat Wrks" you'll also be part of the comedy team. Just warning you.

If you can handle that, you're in for a very funny evening.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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