The Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is a loosely staged, sloppy mess of the comedy by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield. In presenting (almost) every single one of Shakespeare's plays in about an hour and a half plus intermission, director Tom Morrow didn't seem to give his five actors much in the way of blocking, leaving them to frequently mill about or form awkward clumps. Yet it's this unrefined quality that turns out to be the production's chief strength; it's all the more delightful for feeling less like a scripted piece than an improv show.
It's also a tremendous plus that Bryan Woods, Angela Rathman, Rebecca McCorkle, Stacy McKean Herrick, and Martha O'Connell seem to be having so much fun in this funny play. The actors' infectious joy proved enrapturing for me during Thursday's performance, and I took great pleasure in seeing their great pleasure on stage. Morrow has these people sometimes making utter fools of themselves - especially Rathman, who plays an excitable, dimwitted member of the troupe - yet they appear to relish rather than resent it.
Rathman could also be described as "manic" in her role - running, jumping, and falling on stage as she does stupid things such as wearing a necklace of toy boats in the Othello sequence because she "Googled the word 'Moor' and determined it's a place where you tie up boats." When playing the female lead in the troupe's Romeo & Juliet, and discovering that the knife she wields at the story's climax is a retractable one, Rathman stabs herself multiple times in various and silly places, including her butt cheek and the top of her head.
Woods - who, for me, is among the first local actors I think of when I hear "Shakespeare" - fits right in as a sort of narrator for the evening. With pomp, he introduces each piece with its background or an explanation of it, and gets to have a bit of fun, too. Woods' best bit has him presenting Titus Andronicus as a cooking show in the style of Julia Child. Not only dressed as the famous French chef, Woods delivers his lines with a vocal quality matching Child's, though his male falsetto ups the ante on laughs.
The surprise of the night, however, was McCorkle, who makes her second Richmond Hill appearance, following her turn in 2011's Don't Talk to the Actors. McCorkle's energetic moxie almost steals the spotlight, and her presence is bold and commanding while remaining convivial. Portraying someone with a deep love for Shakespeare's works, McCorkle, insisting on getting some things exactly right, adds a dash of freneticism to her performance. Sometimes, though - as in a bit that found the actor dashing to the seat beside me and grabbing my arm to anchor herself from being pulled back on stage - McCorkle's character simply refuses to cooperate, most notably when she doesn't want to have anything to do with Hamlet.
O'Connell and Herrick, almost always present on stage while sitting atop two trunks, sometimes play small parts in the Complete Works pieces, but generally serve merely to pull out costumes for the other actors. Still, they make a good show of it, given Herrick's geniality and O'Connell's humorously eye-rolling, sarcastic presence. Technical director Jennifer Kingry, running things from Richmond Hill's light and sound booth, even gets a few moments in the (proverbial) spotlight; the actors sometimes call to her for specific lights and Kingry, to amusing effect, rarely gives them exactly what they want.
I can't recall another production that looked as much of a mess as this one but whose lack of polish was actually its charm. That, however, is the case with the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and after laughing so heartily while watching the presentation, I wouldn't have wanted them to perform it any other way.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) runs at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive, Geneseo) through April 19, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)944-2244 or visiting RHPlayers.com.