Reduced Shakespeare Company adds slapstick to the Bard's tragedies

November 27, 1990|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

A screaming, galloping Ophelia, Othello singing a rap number and Juliet riding piggyback on Romeo's shoulders are just a few of the irreverent shenanigans that will be perpetrated by a trio of clowns known as The Reduced Shakespeare Company at 3 and 5 p.m. Sunday in Westminster Hall, 515 W. Fayette St.

"The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)" is being presented by the University of Maryland at Baltimore's Command Performance series. This small, versatile troupe from California manages to combine madcap comedy in the tradition of Monty Python with legitimate theater and new wave vaudeville.

Outfitted in high-top sneakers and loose Elizabethan-type garments, Reed Martin, Jess Borgeson and Adam Long present a two-hour show of 37 of Shakespeare's plays as well as his sonnets. They spoof "King Lear," "Macbeth," "Antony and Cleopatra," "Coriolanus," "Hamlet," "The Merchant of Venice," "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "As You Like It," "Twelfth Night," "The Winter's Tale" and others.

The group's unique comedy style (using a lot of the Shakespearean language) can also be compared with those of the late classic clowns Buster Keaton and Harpo Marx. Their act also reminds of those wild slapstick artists, The Three Stooges.

"The tragedies are a lot funnier than the comedies," said Martin in a recent interview. "The comedies have three common plot devices: identical twins, mistaken identities and shipwrecks. We thought we should condense these down to a single play with the title 'The Comedy of Two Well Measured Gentlemen Lost in the Merry Wives of Venice on a Midsummer's Twelfth Night in Winter.'"

An abbreviated version of the tragedy "Titus Andronicus" is a blood and guts episode with a "food" theme. The primary course is "human head pie." Othello, the Moor of Venice, tells his own story to a rap beat.

"Hamlet" is performed with much swordplay and sweat, and the hero breaks out in tears in the middle of his famous soliloquy. "He has still not recovered from learning of Nancy's ovarian cancer," quippedReed in a reference to the "thirtysomething" television program.

Contemporary social and political references are woven throughout the show, which does have a few fine dramatic moments.

"We each die 30 different ways, which is a bit of a challenge," observed Reed, who once served as a clown with the Ringling Brothers Circus.

All three young men are serious professional Shakespearean actors and scholars. "We have to be in order to know how to play with the scripts," said Reed, who worked with John Houseman in the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.

"It wouldn't be funny if we didn't know so well what we are doing."

Long, a sensitive, fine-featured man, plays all the women's roles from Ophelia to Juliet wearing an unruly black floor mop on his head. Reed and Borgeson play most of the male roles.

"We don't talk fast," said Reed. "What we do is cut out all the superfluous words and get right down to the sex and the killings. The lines are half Shakespeare and half our words and vary from show to show."

The RSC (the initials were deliberately chosen to match those of the classic Royal Shakespeare Company) was formed in 1981. After a stretch of unemployment the members created the full-length show and played to sold-out houses at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.

The group has been booked into theaters in London, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and America and insist they will go "anywhere where they speak English."

"We feel this is a way to get people interested in Shakespearwho are ordinarily intimidated by his works," said Reed. "There is much interaction with the audience. The public loves it and so do teachers and students.

"We make fun of Shakespeare but admire and respect his brilliance."

Tickets for The Reduced Shakespeare Company are $10 general admission and $8 for students and senior citizens. For reservations and further information, call 328-2024.

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