Review: ShakesBeer Ft. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare {Abridged} (The Classical Theatre Project)

Photo of The Classical Theatre Project's production of ShakesBeer Ft The Complete Works of William Shakespeare {Abridged}

Shakespeare’s complete works receive a hilarious makeover at Toronto’s Artscape Wychwood Barns

ShakesBeer The Complete Works of Shakespeare {Abridged} is one of those “can’t miss” ideas: perform the complete works of Shakespeare in under 90 minutes in a really cool venue (Artscape Wychwood Barns) and do it with good food and delicious craft beers available. One must certainly tip their beer to The Classical Theatre Project for presenting such an enjoyable show.

The company for ShakesBeer is three talented, energetic and well-versed Shakespeare aficionados. They’re actually out-of-town ringers, brought down to Toronto via York University.

Chutzpah aplenty, Matt Drappel, Jeff Hanson and Kevin Ritchie rip through all those dry plays we had to memorize in high school. ShakesBeer is hilarious from the moment the cast hits the stage. The performers wear over the top tights, which are pretty shocking at first. However, their comedic and theatrical chops soon take centre stage. It’s a tad like Rocky Horror in that the outfits soon move to the background and the talent comes to the fore.

There are lots of props tosses around, literally, too. Rubber chickens, disembodied heads and oh, that wig. That kind of teamwork and choreography alone is worth the price of admission.

While all of The Bard’s works are approached, some are lumped together and others receive more attention. It all works perfectly well, helping the show move along at breakneck speed. Chances are you’ll get lost from time to time but don’t worry. You’ll find you way back in order to get the next one.

Oddly, I don’t recall any “pound of flesh” references from Merchant of Venice. I know the power of mercy is not strained, but if we’re going to get all street thug, I want to see one of the boys in tights onstage grabbing their crotch and saying “I got your pound of flesh right here.” Maybe that sounds base, but there were Leafs references and audience members wearing ball caps backwards.

Maybe the goal was to make the performance natural, organic and authentic with no modern gadgets getting between the audience and the performance. However, when an overhead heater that may or may not have been exhumed from a 1950’s garage takes centre stage over the performance, all I can say is “Stratford, we have a problem.”

That being said, the minimal approach to stage is perfectly suited for ShakesBeer, putting the spotlight on the performers, the laughs and the audience’s enjoyment. Maybe a minor compromise to technology could be made and a single microphone hung over the stage next time.

From what I understand, original performances of Shakespeare included a “pit”. Patrons lucky enough to be seated there paid a penny and were a tad rough around the edges. To me, that sounds really fascinating. Perhaps the bleacher creatures at ShakesBeer are enjoying the same sort of experience 400 years later. One certainly hopes and thinks so.

Hamlet is actually done three times, which is probably the highlight of the night. During one version I turned to Mike, my companion for the evening and said “Paul is dead”. ShakesBeer is a play that brings out that sort of good-natured silliness.

Walking out of Wychwood Barns, Mike and I discussed the three different versions of Hamlet. We both agreed that the The Classical Theatre Project did an amazing job overall, but specifically during the finale. The concept alone is brilliant, but to think about how much rehearsal time, the choreography and keeping the comedy chops flowing is just mind boggling.

Mike and I also reminisced about Hamlet being performed on Gilligan’s Island. What shone through about that performance was the brilliant slapstick that Classical Theatre Project performs. Whatever the case, a company that can make Shakespeare a tough ticket is doing something very right.

Overall, I’d say definitely check out ShakesBeer next time it is mounted. If you are anything at all like the audience we saw it with, you’ll enjoy it from start to finish. I would say this ShakesBeer performance would be more enjoyable in a tent or clearing outdoors – in a park would be amazing. It’s one helluva theme party! 

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