`Reduced' topics, big laughs

Arts

June 29, 2006|By SARAH MARSTON | SARAH MARSTON,SUN REPORTER

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is always happy to appear at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

The theater's intimacy "helps with the kind of thing we do: cutting out the important characters and getting right to the sex and killing," said cast member Austin Tichenor.

The kings of condensation are back for their fifth run at the Kennedy Center with All the Great Books (abridged) and The Complete History of America (abridged), each of which squeezes years of scholarly studies into about 90 minutes of wacky, fast-paced comedy.

"Why they keep booking us, I have no idea," said Tichenor, co-writer and co-director of both shows. "We love to get into the most prestigious place we can and act silly."

Tichenor stars in both Kennedy Center productions with Reed Martin, also co-writer and co-director of both plays, and Adam Long.

Combine Saturday Night Live's ridiculousness with Monty Python's social commentary, throw in some extra cross-dressing and you get the picture. Originating as a California fair act in 1981, the company is perhaps best known for its original production, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).

With six different shows, international tours, DVDs and books behind it and a potential Hollywood deal on the horizon, today's Reduced Shakespeare Company offers more than its name suggests.

In Great Books and America, antics include literally "sweeping" through the great books with a broom, a Ronald Reagan ventriloquist act, a soap-opera dialogue between Oliver Twist and Ebenezer Scrooge, an Uncle Sam-I-Am, and combining The Iliad and The Odyssey into the epic "The Idiodity."

As the "RSC" boys say, if you are "confused by Confucius," "thoroughly thrown by Thoreau," or "wish Swift was swifter," then Great Books offers the short and silly educational crash course you might desire.

The actors pretend the Great Books audience is a high school English class that is 90 minutes shy of graduation when its teacher is tragically trampled at a J.K. Rowling book-signing. RSC then saves the day by cramming 90 of Western literature's greatest books into the 90-minute countdown.

"The show has everything you should have read in high school but probably didn't," said Tichenor, for whom the greatest part of writing Great Books was reading them for the first time himself. The Homer epics are now among his personal favorites.

For those who slept through high school U.S. history class, there's the option of 600 years of history in 6,000 seconds with America.

"Between the three of us, we've probably all heard of the American Revolution," Tichenor said of the cast's expertise. Kidding aside, Tichenor was a history major in college and actually had to cut out the more obscure historical figures he wanted to include in the show. Not many audience members would laugh at references to 13th president Millard Fillmore, Tichenor concluded.

Although both shows have previously appeared at the Kennedy Center, audiences can expect something new, especially in America. "They keep writing American history, so we keep re-producing it," Tichenor said. Specifically, the current production addresses the origins of the War on Terror and its parallels to previous historical events.

"We always like to incorporate the audience," Tichenor said. The cast takes historical questions from audience members during America, and quizzes them on literature in Great Books.

The actors try to keep the shows fresh, although most parts are scripted. Unplanned moments sometimes slip out when behind-the-scenes discussions "spill onstage," Tichenor said. Responses to the audience are also, of course, improvised.

A need for spontaneity arose once when the company was playing at a college and a man leaped onstage uninvited, taking the cast aback. "For a second I felt like John Lennon must have felt before he was shot," Tichenor said. It turned out that the guy just wanted to take part in the show.

The shows may be lighthearted, but Tichenor defends their intellectual and educational value. Those who are contemptuous of the shows "usually aren't familiar enough with what we're satirizing," he said. "We try to get our facts right when we're not trying to get them wrong for laughs."

Tichenor also finds it gratifying that some teachers include recordings of the shows in their curriculums, "although obviously not as a replacement for the main text," he said.

As for a Baltimore appearance, Tichenor is more than ready. "As soon as someone wants to bring us to Baltimore, we're there."

The Reduced Shakespeare Company will perform at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, Wednesday through July 30. "All the Great Books (abridged)" will run July 11-16 and July 25-30. "The Complete History of America (abridged)" will run Wednesday through July 9 and July 18-23. The center is at 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. Tickets are $40-45. Showtimes vary. For tickets, visit the Kennedy Center Box Office, call 800-444-1324, or go to kennedy-center.org.

sarah.marston@baltsun.com

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