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 stage play. Hilarity most DEFINITELY ensues.
This was created by the Reduced Shakespeare Company (the specific original writers being Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield), 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. Unusually 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 names, since the script occasionally has them address or refer to each other.
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 (The Zeroth Law of Trope Examples, anyone?), in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" the performance of Pyramis and Thisbe by Bottom and his friends.
- Forbidden Broadway also predates this by at least 5 years.
- The Annotated Edition: 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."
- In the abridged version of Macbeth: "Ye killed me wife, ye murdered me bairns, ye did a poop in me soup!note "
- 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.
- Awesome Anachronistic Apparel (inverted) / Anachronism Stew: The costuming direction calls for Converse hi-tops to be worn with Shakespearean garb.
- Bedsheet Ghost: The ghost of Hamlet's father is initially portrayed by a sock with a smiley face drawn on it dangled from the ceiling. Later, when one of the actors shows up as the ghost, the script calls for him to wear a costume that resembles a large sock.
- Blunt "Yes": Austin and Reed's response when Adam asks "What, is it a crime to take someone's bag?"
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Adam refuses to perform dry, boring, vomitless Shakespeare.
- Butt-Monkey: Adam.
- Conflict Ball: Held by Adam when he refuses to do Hamlet and runs out of the theatre with Jess/Austin in pursuit, leaving Reed/Daniel to distract the crowd before and after the intermission. In the script, it's later held by Daniel complaining about the Audience Participation in the "get thee to a nunnery" scene (the video version gives it to Adam again).
- Conspiracy Kitchen Sink: Adam's worldview, as shown by his interpretation of "Two Noble Kinsmen".note
- Creator Cameo: Daniel Singer is the "volunteer" who plays the ego on the DVD.
- 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!
- Critical Research Failure: In-Universe example comes from Adam. When the others leave Adam on his own to research Othello, he concludes that the "moor" referred to in the title is where you tie up a boat.
Adam: It's a Mel Gibson movie!
- He also believes that Hamlet was not written by Shakespeare.
- A more straight example is displayed in the Othello rap. While it's certainly clever, it gets quite a few details about the play bizarrely wrong, such as stating that Iago's hatred of Othello was down to him (Iago) being in love with Desdemona (while Iago gives several excuses for his behaviour, that is never one of them...).
- Cue Card Pause: "... and Mary Arden, daughter of a Roman. ... Catholic member of the landed gentry."
- Deadpan Snarker: Jess and Daniel. Depending on the crowd, the audience can get in on it, too.
- 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.
- 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.
Juliet: O, I feel a cold and drowsy humour running through my veins.
Friar: Told you so.
- The Exit Is That Way: In the video version of the Hamlet performanceHamlet: The time is out of joint—O cursed spite, that ever I was born to exit right!
[starts to exit, realizes he is going stage left, and quickly reverses direction]
- Footnote Fever: In the annotated edition, the footnotes sometimes take up more space on the page than the text itself.
- Foreshadowing: "C'mon, we know Hamlet backward and forward!"
- Gratuitous Rap: The Othello performance. Used because Othello is a moor.
- Groin Attack: Romeo and Juliet has two: Juliet initially deals with Romeo's advances by kneeing him between the legs, and later when Romeo discovers Juliet feigning death, he accidentally steps on her crotch when running up to her.
- Harpo Does Something Funny: Invoked 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.
- Heh Heh, You Said "X": Adam convinces Austin and Reed to skip Coriolanus because he doesn't like the "anus" part.
- When Romeo says "Call me but love," Juliet laughs and thinks he said "Call me Buttlove," which she proceeds to do for the rest of the sketch.
- Historical Hilarity: "'Shakespeare invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, thus precipitating World War II.' I never knew 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.
- Hypocritical Humor: Austin and Reed have no problem with skipping Coriolanus, but are having none of it when Adam suggests they also skip Hamlet
- I Need a Freaking Drink: On the DVD, when Romeo is about to kiss Juliet (Adam), he looks down and takes another swig of poison first.
- Idiot Ball: Mostly carried by Adam, but Jess picks it up from time to time as well.
- Inertial Impalement: The "fight" between Tybalt and Romeo is played thusly.Tybalt: Thou wretched boy, I am for you! (Romeo closes his eyes and holds out his sword, and Tybalt runs right into it) O, I am slain!
- 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.
- Major Injury Underreaction: During the Hamlet vs. Laertes duel:Hamlet: What say you?
Laertes: (looking at the sword going right through him) A touch. A touch, I do confess.
- Musical Gag + Mythology Gag:
- At least in the home video release, during the "EPILOGUE!" finish to Romeo and Juliet, Adam plays the 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.
- At least in the home video release, during the "EPILOGUE!" finish to Romeo and Juliet, Adam plays the 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:
- My Biological Clock Is Ticking: Ophelia in the crew's version of Hamlet.Ophelia: Cut the crap, Hamlet! My biological clock is ticking and I want babies now!
- Keep in mind that the above line is not spoken by Ophelia, but by the audience representing her inner monologue.
- My Grandma Can Do Better Than You: The response to Adam claiming that Ophelia's a difficult and complex character."Anyone can play Ophelia! My mother can play Ophelia! That lady right there can play Ophelia!"
- Nausea Fuel: In the Macbeth sketch, the circumstances of Macduff's birth are this to Macbeth.Macduff: And know that Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd! What'd you think aboot that, lad?Macbeth: Ech! That's bloody disgustin'!
- 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!"
"I don't care; we've got five of them."
- "No Talking or Phones" Warning: The company not only warns the audience to turn off cell phones and pagers but demonstrates how to use the oxygen masks that will fall from the ceiling in case of pressure loss in the theater. In the "Revised" edition, there is a Call-Back (literally) at the start of Act II, when the character who gave the warning has his own cell phone go off in the middle of his speech to the audience.
- Offstage Crash: Reed gets into one while skipping offstage as Romeo in the video.
- One Steve Limit: Averted. The company calls multiple people "Bob" claiming it's easier for them to remember.
- Parental Incest: In the composite comedy:
- Police Code for Everything: In the radio show version a "Elizabethan Plot Device #37" covers all of the plot points in the final act of Romeo and Juliet.
- Radio Drama: The play was adapted into a six-part radio series in Britain, with episodes dealing with Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, the remainder of the tragedies, the comedies, the histories, and the life of William Shakespeare. The format effectively doubled the length of the stage show and enabled the troupe to expand jokes and add new material. This included "special guests" (Reed "impersonating" people like Oprah and Helena Bonham Carter), more raps and recreations of the origins of the Capulet/Montague feud and the lost Shakespeare play "Cardenio".
- Rage Quit: When the aforementioned excuses get him nowhere, Adam storms off the stage, insisting that Austin and Reed do Hamlet while he just watches.
- Rewind Gag: The guys announce that they know Hamlet backward, then prove it by performing their cut-down version in reverse. The old king's ghost flits around going "ooB", and Ophelia, whose drowning is represented in the cut-down version by being splashed with a glass of water, un-drowns by spitting a mouthful of water into a glass. See it here.
- Rhetorical Question Blunder: During Romeo and Juliet, Romeo notes that death has not decreased Juliet's beauty.Romeo: Why are thou yet so fair?
Juliet: I dunno!
- Rule of Funny: The show is made from this.
- Rule of Three:Ghost of Hamlet's Father: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!
Ghost of Hamlet's Father: For the serpent that did sting thy father's life now wears his crown!
Hamlet: My uncle!
Horatio: His uncle!
Ghost of Hamlet's Father: Let not the royal bed of Denmark become a couch for incest!
Horatio: A couch!
- 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."
- The Scottish Trope: The Scottish Play is part of Shakespeare's repertoire, so of course this comes into play with the actors tiptoeing around the name because it's cursed. In the recorded version, Adam trips on-cue when Reed says "Macbeth."
- Shown Their Work: Underneath all the silliness is a very thorough understanding of Shakespeare's work. The show makes for a pretty decent introduction to the Bard.
- Adam pulls off a masterful reading of Hamlet's "what a piece of work is man" speech that leaves even the audience silent - right before the crew declares that they're skipping that speech entirely.
- The script also marks which lines come more or less directly from the original Shakespeare. There are more of them than you'd think.
- Sophisticated as Hell: Actual lines from the Shakespearean plays mixed in with phrases such as "Up yours, Capulet!" and "Dude, your boob!"
- Subliminal Seduction: Just before performing Hamlet backward, Austin says "Be sure to listen for the Satanic messages!"
- Frank Sinatra is God!
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion:
- Played straight, then subverted in the rap.Othello loved Desi like Adonis loved Venus,
And Desi loved Othello 'cause he had a big...sword.
But Iago had a plan that was clever and slick.
He was crafty, he was sly, he was kind of a prick.
- 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.
- Played straight, then subverted in the rap.
- Take That!: In the televised show during the composite comedy.One of the shrews is elected Senator from New York!
- That Came Out Wrong: Jess/Austin and his book on Shakespeare, I Love My Willy. Which he'd like to whip out for the audience and his co-stars (the book, that is). Quoth the script, just to make it worse:Jess: Its big, its long, its uncut, and Ive been hammering away on it for years.
- Those Wacky Nazis: Adam's biography of Shakespeare becomes one of Hitler after he drops his index cards.
- Troperiffic: As an Ur-Example of The Abridged Series, the play uses just about every Abridged Series Trope despite predating the genre by 19 years.
- Trouser Space: At one point, Jess/Austin pulls a book out of the front of his pants.
- Unusual Euphemism: The annotated version claims 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.Adam: 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: Averted 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—
Juliet: 'Butt-love'? Why would I call you 'Butt-love'?