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Brevity is the soul of wit.
Three actors (male in the video and the original troupe), with the use of costumes, bad wigs, and more wordplay and slapstick comedy than you can shake a rubber skull at, reenact the entirety of the works of William Shakespeare within the time frame of a two-act stageplay. Hilarity most DEFINITELY ensues.
This was originally created by The Reduced Shakespeare Company, but has since been sold/given to/adapted by a wide variety of comedy troupes and theatre companies.
The play has No Fourth Wall, requires performers to make it up as they go and audience participation. This means the likelihood of two shows (even from the same company of actors) being the same twice is very low, if not outright impossible. Unusual for a modern play, performers are not under contract to be as true to the script as possible after acquiring performance rights.
That said, the script has three roles named for the actors who originally performed the piece: Daniel (the troupe leader), Jess (the scholar/serious actor), and Adam (comic relief; plays nearly all the female parts). Actors usually perform using their own names.
Tropes in TCWOWSA include:
- The Abridged Series: Ur Example, and the Trope Codifier for theatrical productions. There are now equivalent shows for just about every literary oeuvre.
- In their 30th Anniversary Retrospective, however, they admit that they weren't the first to come up with the idea of shortening things for humorous effect. Specifically (Zeroth Law of Trope Examples, anyone?), in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" the performance of Pyramis and Thisbe by Bottom and his friends.
- All There in the Manual: The book of the show not only contains the script, but also hundreds of hysterical footnotes that make the book worth reading on its own.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "Shakespeare's plays have been [reimagined] on the lunar landscape, Nazi prisoner-of-war camps, and even Vancouver."
- Audience Participation: At the end of the first act, the actors use an audience member's program to figure out what they haven't done. At another, they recruit an audience member to play the part of Ophelia--with the rest of the audience playing the various parts of Ophelia's psyche.
- Bonnie Scotland: Gleefully plays with every major Scottish stereotype the authors can think of.
- Lampshaded by the annotated version, which notes the lack of any lines about the engines' inability to "take any more o' this."
- Butt Monkey: Adam.
- Conspiracy Kitchen Sink: Adam's worldview, as shown by his interpretation of "
ChernobylTwo Noble Kinsmen".
- Creepy Crossdresser: Accidentally invoked when the frequent costume changes finally catch up to Adam, who emerges dressed simultaneously as Claudius, Gertrude, and Ophelia.
Jess (as Hamlet): "Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, cross-dressing Dane: follow my mother!"
- Cue Card Pause: "... and Mary Arden, daughter of a Roman. ... Catholic member of the landed gentry."
- Do Not Try This At Home: Invoked by the cast just before the 45-second Hamlet. Subverted when Adam suggests doing it at a friend's house instead.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The play incorporates (or at least mentions) every play and sonnet by William Shakespeare.
- Also, during Romeo and Juliet:
Friar: Take thou this vial, and this distilled liquor drink thou off. And presently through all thy veins shall run a cold and drowsy humour.
- The Exit Is That Way: In the video version of the Hamlet performance
Hamlet: The time is out of joint--O cursed spite, that ever I was born to exit right!
- Footnote Fever: In the annotated edition, the footnotes sometimes take up more space on the page than the text itself.
- Gratuitous Rap: The Othello performance. Used because Othello is a moor.
- In some performances the it's played for Deliberate Values Dissonance, with one member of the troupe clearly uncomfortable with this (until he forgets); usually the same one who was embarassed about even attempting Othello due to being "melanin challenged".
- Harpo Does Something Funny: Numerous places in the script. Before Intermission, Daniel's stage direction is "[he] Stalls" with a footnote describing the absurd things previous productions have done to entertain the audience.
- He Really Can Act: Adam spends most of the play carrying the Idiot Ball. Then, halfway through Act II, he gives a quiet, understated performance of the "What a Piece Of Work is Man" speech. Played right (as Adam himself does in the video), it's a showstopper.
- Historical Hilarity: "'Shakespeare invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, thus precipitating World War II.' Huh, I didn't know that!"
- Hurricane of Puns
- Even the annotations are guilty of this. Example: Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are linked with Macbeth (with MacDuff "from my mother's womb most untimely ripped") in what the script calls the "Caesarean section" of the show.
- Idiot Ball: Mostly carried by Adam, but Jess picks it up from time to time as well.
- Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Jess (and his successor Austin), most obviously in the "Troilus and Cressida" segment.
- Large Ham: Pretty much a requirement for all three.
- Musical Gag + Mythology Gag: At least in the home video release, during the "EPILOGUE!" finish to Romeo and Juliet, Adam plays a guitar while intoning background music to the spoken narration. The song he sings is the 'Love Theme' from Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 adaptation. The others join in at the end:
- "FOR ROMEO AND JULIET ARE DEAD!"
- Some productions have been known to use "Romeo and Juliet" by Dire Straits.
- My Biological Clock Is Ticking: Ophelia in the crew's version of Hamlet.
"Cut the crap, Hamlet! My biological clock is ticking and I want babies now!!"
- Nice Shoes: The cast traditionally wears Converse hi-tops. Given the sheer physicality of the show, this is as much a practical choice as it is an aesthetic one.
- No Fourth Wall: Taken Up to Eleven. Not only does the cast constantly address the crowd, but they also drag members onstage (willingly or not), steal their seats, sit on their laps, pretend to vomit on them, and in one (brief) case, take a member hostage.
"I'll kill the cameraman!"
- Parental Incest: In the composite comedy:
Ghost of Hamlet's Father: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!
- Shown Their Work: Underneath all the silliness is a very thorough understanding of Shakespeare's work. The show actually makes for a pretty decent introduction to the Bard.
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: Played straight, then subverted in the rap.
Othello loved Desi like Adonis loved Venus,
- Some troupes (or, at the very least, one performance by one troupe) made the subversion more obvious, replacing "prick" with "penis" followed by an awkward pause.
- The Danza: Actors will generally just use their own names for the show, as the original run did.
- Those Wacky Nazis: Adam's biography of Shakespeare becomes one of Hitler after he drops his index cards.
- Throw It In: Both subverted and played straight. The show's conceit is that these guys are making it up as they go, and much of the "spontaneity" is actually scripted. Then again, improvisation is encouraged, and there is a lot that can go wrong, so no two performances are ever quite the same.
- Unusual Euphemism: The annotated version makes the claim that in Elizabethan England, men commonly sharpened their penises and used them as tools (such as boning knives) or weapons, giving the phrase "profaners of this neighbor-stained steel" an entirely different meaning.
- Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Adam vomits in all his death scenes. Usually on audience members.
- 'I refuse to do dry, boring, vomitless Shakespeare.'
- It should be noted that he only pretends to vomit. The DVD features him dry heaving (with extremely evocative sound effects) into an audience member's hat.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Subverted if the troupe in question casts a woman as Adam's role.
- Wig, Dress, Accent: Justified, costume changes are ridiculously short.
- Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Averted, surprisingly. Almost all of the dialogue is either directly from Shakespeare, or contemporary English. The few cases where they blend are played for laughs.
Romeo: "Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized--"