EL CERRITO -- Embarking on her debut as Contra Costa Civic Theatre's artistic director, it's easy to imagine Marilyn Langbehn mulling the available repertoire and angling to make a splash. "Let's do all of Shakespeare," she might have said to herself. And so, they will.
Presenting "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)(Revised)" from Jan. 31 through Feb. 23, all 37 of The Bard's plays will spool onto the stage in a 90-minute NASCAR-paced frolic delivered by an all-female cast of three.
The production arrives courtesy of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, a three-man comedy troupe who wrote and first performed the play in 1987. Its Edinburgh Fringe Festival premiere launched a nine-year odyssey, delivering the play all over the world and, as the title indicates, inviting iterations during the journey.
"Fearless," might be the best way to encapsulate Langbehn's selection and her boisterous-but-laser-like energy. But that would skirt the central, stabilizing structure of her leadership (and the play).
"Complete Works" nestles improvisation and audience participation in a bedrock of sturdy theatrical architecture.
A fight rehearsal three weeks before opening night runs under the commanding eye of fight choreographer Carla Pantoja.
"We'll pin that one and move on, show me something else," Pantoja says.
The actors -- Hannah Quigg, Trish Tillman and Shannon Warrick -- reposition their fencing foils and again, "blood" pours from a slit throat. Pantoja rockets through a rat-a-tat-tat of corrections and they move on.
Everything about the play, including the rehearsal, moves at warp speed, it seems. Asked about the challenges of the play's countless costume changes -- "Othello" delivered as Rap, "Macbeth" done with golf clubs while dressed in full Scottish drag, a 43-second "Hamlet," and the history plays performed as a football game with Henry XIII as the victor -- the actors don't hesitate.
"It's doing all the changes from one story to the next without losing my mind that's most difficult," Tillman says.
"The switching is tough," says Warrick. "We have to do every costume change ourselves. At one point, the fake boobs I wear end up outside of my costume, so the joke is both in and out of the play. The pure number of character changes is ludicrous."
Quigg says male actors have traditionally received more complicated roles, but playing the villain (for approximately two seconds) is appeasing her inner Tybalt. Expressing regret that men still enjoy the advantages in theater, she says, "If the percentage of male to female directors flipped, more women -- more women of color, especially -- would get their stories told."
Warrick agrees, saying "playing evil is fun," and Tillman chimes a third, more moderate liberation bell saying, "I get to play Hamlet. I get to say those beautiful words."
Langbehn admires the condensed highlights of "Complete Works." The play's "whitecaps" emphasize Shakespeare's demanding, rich characters without forfeiting the beauty of the language. Casting a group of women in works offering more than 1,000 roles -- but few darkly-shaded ones for women -- makes her feel like a "Christine Columbus," breaching the Shakespearean horizon. "What will happen when women dig into the breadth?" she asks.
Admittedly, it's a raucous rendition, but Langbehn says the playwrights have "winnowed out what works and what doesn't" and within the production, the improvisation is structured and scripted. Interestingly, audience reactions are the play's loose cannon and determine some of the actors' choices. "When I was a kid, I remember "Switched on Bach" horrified the purists," Langbehn says. "What I thought then and now is, if this puts the melodies in their head and they're not afraid, it's a gateway."
Theater is becoming more participatory, she suggests, pointing out that the "fourth wall" separating audience from performer has been broken through since the Middle Ages.
"We're in the world to have a good time; we thrive on connections," she says. And although she won't reveal how it all ends -- death and betrayal? -- she dangles a teaser, saying prop mistress Kaela Franz's baked goods at the end of "Titus" might just rock the boat.
WHAT: Contra Costa Civic Theatre, 951 Pomona Ave. in El Cerrito, presents "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (Revised)" Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., Jan. 31-Feb. 23.
Tickets: 510-524-9132 or www.ccct.org