By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jan 21, 2012 at 7:58 AM

Three male roommates living in a man-cave apartment decide to act out all 37 of Shakespeare's plays. In under two hours.

That's the setup for "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)," a 25-year-old theatrical parody that ran for nearly a decade in London. The Milwaukee Rep opened an entertaining production of the show in its Stackner Cabaret this week.

The cabaret is the appropriate location for this excursion into the Shakespearean canon because "The Complete Works"  is a blend of standup and sketch comedy. Even the tragedies are funny.

Actors use their real names -- Joe Dempsey, Ernie Gonzales and Gerard Neugent in the Rep production -- and create individual comic personas for the modern romp through Elizabethan times. The theatrical fourth wall was never built for this show. The performers repeatedly address the audience, interact with the audience and run through the audience.

Irreverence rules, and Shakespeare would be tickled by the contemporary bawdy humor.

Faithful theatergoers are no strangers to "The Complete Works." It has been produced everywhere, including here 11 years ago by the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. But every cast contributes its own qualities, and the show is kept fresh by continual updating of topical references. The musical "Wicked," Tim Tebow and the Kardashians make it into the Stackner staging.

Dempsey, Gonzales and Neugent are individually and collectively adept at comically working an audience and maintaining a madcap manic tone.

The material sags some in the second act, which focuses on "Hamlet" and includes superfluous audience participation. Watching the paying customers do dumb things on stage is a tired old stunt that only lengthens the evening.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.