According to the advertisement, those who like Shakespeare will like Shakespeare (Abridged), and those who hate Shakespeare will love this version of his plays. And the ad's about right. Despite the existence of The Complete History of America (Abridged), The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), All the Great Books (Abridged), and plenty of others, the (Abridgement) of the Bard is the one really awesome gimmick The Reduced Shakespeare Company ever came up with — you can tell how new and very unformulaic the formula was when the Company's struggling founders first invented it, and despite two decades and more of constant performance, the Bard's (Abridgement) still feels novel and fun, like the product of kids being insouciant just for the sheer thumb-plucking hell of it. The jokes are not deep — cramming every Shakespeare play into 90 minutes, as Shakespeare (Abridged) tries to do, does not lend itself to deep textual analysis — but only hopeless malcontents will bitch. When Romeo says, "Call me but love, and I'll be new Baptized..." and Juliet (played by a man) says, "Hooookay, Butt Love," the rest of us just grin.
This production is yet more proof that August Wilson is damned near indestructible. If he wasn't, the blunt direction and hammy, uneven acting of this play would cause a mass exodus at each intermission, yet people stick around for Wilson's crazy poetics — and maybe, maybe, for actress Lela Elam. Joe Turner is the 1910s installment of Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, an epic, decade-by-decade examination of the black experience in America. It takes place in a metal-worker's boarding house where everyone seems to be looking for something — home, dignity, identity, money. Herald Loomis, the newest boarder, is looking for his wife, whom he hasn't seen since being captured by a chain-gang operator (the titular Turner) a decade earlier. The script hinges on a weird, spooky relationship between Herald and another boarder, the shaman named Bynum Walker. Unfortunately, the actors handling the parts of Loomis and Walker (Herman Carabali II and Chat Atkins, respectively) are total bumblers — affected, graceless, and plain annoying. (Listen to Atkins put on that pinched old-man voice, as he seems to do for so, so many roles. The guy's 30 years old, for Chrissakes — can't anyone ever cast him as a non-septuagenarian?) The only thing that makes this Joe Turner palatable at all is the performance of Ms. Elam. Relegated to what's almost a walk-on role and utterly incidental to the plot, Elam's the kind of artist who owns any stage she touches. As a corseted, libidinous gold digger with champagne tastes and a sub-beer pocketbook, she swaggers with the automatic authority of Mick Jagger, and in her long looks and breathless speech, imbues her every line with almost more sexiness than it can bear.
The Seafarer is a memorable play in every way, but two things especially stick with you long after you've left the theater: the realism and agility of The Seafarer's dialogue, and the scariness of actor Ken Clement. This is another spooky, booze-soaked, supernatural Irish play written by spooky, booze-soaked, supernatural Irishman Conor McPherson, and like a lot of his work, it is driven by the terror of a guilty conscience. One of its characters beat an indigent to death for no reason at all, and now, on a Christmas Eve night 25 years later, the Devil (Ken Clement) has come for his soul. Despite the dark premise, The Seafarer is not a dark drama. The interplay between the nondiabolical characters — played by Dennis Creaghan, Gregg Weiner, John Felix and Christian Rockwell — is funny, beautiful, effortless, and performed with the awkward rhythms of real speech and the warmth of real fraternity. Creaghan and Weiner play aging brothers (alcoholics and failures both), and the worn-grain feel of their interactions imbues their relationship with such a sense of shared memory that you may honestly forget you're in a theater at all.