The Reduced Shakespeare Company performed "All the Great Books (Abridged)" before a rambunctious, back-talking audience Friday night in Studio Arena Theatre.
When a Bush joke got considerable laughter, the actors feigned surprise, prompting one man in the audience to call out: "This is a blue state." This outburst caused the Professor (played ingratiatingly by Michael Faulkner) to do a quick take and come back with, "Do we come down to McDonald's and bother you while you work?"
This tells you something about the kind of humor going on here. The funny, freewheeling trio of actors -- Faulkner, Mick Orfe as Coach and Brent Tubbs as Brent, the student teacher -- works, on script and off. They add lines when they want, hack around with missed lines ("I'm waiting for a line I recognize") and have impromptu exchanges about costumes ("Hey, you got your armor on backwards." "Well, at least I got out of my horse costume").
The bits are all skillfully worked out -- Don Quixote riding a broomstick horse and Sancho Panza on a mop; Molly from James Joyce's "Ulysses" sounding American " 'cause my Irish is crap;" "Walden" done by a gun-toting, bird-shooting Ernest Hemingway ("More like 'Walden' done by Dick Cheney"). But slipping in, out and around the script are many moments of smart improv. That can make an audience feel like it's in a comedy club.
So, we were a little sassy. The premise of this goofy entertainment is that all those gathered are in a remedial class. It seems that, dignified theatergoers though we are, the lot of us has failed Western Lit. This is the cram course: 87 great books all in a gulp. "And graduation will be in one hour and 45 minutes," the Coach reminds us with some glee.
These are three excellent comics who work wonderfully together and know how to work an audience. (Some latecomers got smartly abused.) The writing sometimes has an inspired touch of crazed ridiculousness. And the bold shamelessness of the corn (the existential frat house: Sigma Phi Nothing) is nothing if not brave. I especially liked the interior monologue bits for Joyce, Calypso the sea nymph with the clamshell breasts and the dancing Trojan horse.
So do we get all 87 books? Well, yes, I'm told (deadlines caused an early departure), eventually. After a rather leisurely take on a handful of classics (the abridged "Odyssey" could have used an abridgment itself), those books not covered were given one-sentence sum-ups by Brent. He gets all the remaining books heaved at him by the other two for his heroic effort.
But the show was not as full-bore funny as I had hoped. It seems the kind of zany entertainment better suited to smaller venues, where maybe things get actually thrown around a little more (there were a few soft tosses to the audience), and the calculated mayhem is not stranded on such a big stage.
Why, I wonder, is Studio Arena doing this kind of packaged show? It's good enough material and entertaining, no doubt. But this is our big presenting theater, the place that is supposed to be setting the standard. A road show, no matter how amusing, is an abridgement of responsibility. At least, in my book.
"All the Great Books (Abridged)"
3 stars (out of 4)
Comedy presented in Studio Arena Theatre by the Reduced Shakespeare Company through April 9. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org