Twenty years ago, at various Renaissance festivals in California, a trio of aimlessly educated smart asses started performing fractured versions of Shakespeare's plays: bad puns, Juliet in drag, Hamlet performed in five minutes, that sort of thing. They called themselves the Reduced Shakespeare Company. By 1987, they had pulled together The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) -- the entire canon in an hour -- and premiered it at the Edinburgh Festival.
That single comic romp sprouted into a theatrical franchise operation. In 1993, the RSC produced their second stage show, The Complete History of America (abridged) (now at Interplayers through Sept. 28; see review on p. 17). Having skewered the likes of the Bard and the Father of Our Country, it was only a matter of time until the gang took on the Bible, in The Complete Word of God (abridged); the last 1,000 years of human history, in The Complete Millennium Musical (abridged); and 80 or so literary classics, in The Reducers: All the Great Books (abridged). The Reduced Shakespeare Company: what Cliff's Notes would be if Cliff's Notes had a sense of humor, and didn't care about making a profit, and really didn't care whether you passed the damn test.
Currently fine-tuning his direction of The Reducers in a production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is one of the RSC's leading membranes, Austin Tichenor. While Tichenor wasn't in at Shakespeare's conception, he is responsible for co-authoring America and the Bible with Adam Long and Reed Martin, and The Millennium Musical and The Reducers with Martin.
Are they lovin' it in Montgomery? "Well," chuckles Tichenor, "we've been getting standing ovations every night. But at one point, we refer to entertaining the audience as 'arduous' -- and some of them obviously don't get that it's not a compliment." In order to keep up with the RSC boys' brand of smarty-pants slapstick, you may need to work arduously. Indeed, the New York Times' Stephen Holden tagged the shows' style as "intellectual vaudeville."
Tichenor agrees with the label. His comedic influences, he explains, are Warner Brothers cartoons, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers and Monty Python -- "because they're both absurd and intellectual," says Tichenor. "When I was a kid," he recalls, "I wanted to be John Cleese. And then I found out they already had one."
Despite the yucks, however, Holden also characterized the America show as "pointedly nihilistic" -- an assertion Tichenor disputes. He recalls "writing a draft of America that had a couple of really cynical chunks that were more nihilistic than funny. So we cut them." Still, if not cynical, this particular lesson in American history scatters its sarcastic shots. George Washington speaks like bureaucrat in full obfuscation mode. Spanish explorers pilot ships "with large fuzzy dice." ViewMasters pop up in World War I trenches; Indians are given names like Sits Down to Pee; Vietnam war protesters recite Dr. Seuss-style jingles; the political philosophy of conservatives is reduced to "Screw the poor. Let's party."
In the RSC Weltanschauung, everyone deserves an occasional pie in the eye. Tichenor owns up to a liberal bias, but claims that "Republicans make our best audiences. The Democrats are all shushing each other -- they're not sure if they should be laughing about any of our jokes about minorities."
The jokes of the RSC target both the political left and the right. Tichenor recalls a performance at the Kennedy Center of the play about the Bible: "We go out in the lobby afterwards -- to meet our audience, sign autographs and shamelessly hawk our merchandise -- and some guy comes running through, screaming, 'The only miracle about this show is that for once you made fun of the Democrats.' And I thought, there are four Clinton jokes in the bit about the Ten Rejected Commandments alone."
At one point in the Bible show, when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, God says, "I was kidding. Why do all you fundamentalists have no sense of humor?" In the most recent show, The Reducers, Tichenor reports that "People have complained that we have omitted The Lord of the Rings, but I just tell them that we left out The Communist Manifesto, too, because we're not covering works of fantasy." Tichenor et al. will skewer any self-important person, even including Homer. In The Reducers, he says, "We condense The Iliad and The Odyssey into a single work, which we call The Idiotity." Holli Hornlien, the director of the current Interplayers version of the America play has taken to calling its three authors "equal-opportunity offenders."
"If our shows are anything," Tichenor has remarked, "they're sort of a rebellion against putting anything up on a pedestal, be it Shakespeare or American history or the Bible or world history."
So come prepared to scoff and chortle. And be aware that this thorough-yet-partial trip through American history is fully interactive. The three Interplayers actors -- Craig Dingle, Tim Kniffin and Michael Weaver -- won't allow you to sit on your hands like some group of guilt-ridden Democrats. They will eavesdrop on your conversations, thrust microphones into your face, squirt you with water and tease latecomers unmercifully. And, yes, class, there will be a quiz. (Hint: study up on early 20th-century labor reform.)