- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

Too bad students facing summer school can’t enroll in the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s infinitely zany remedial literature class. In less than two hours, the troupe zips through 83 classics in the Western canon.

Audience members even get a diploma at the end, valid only if you purchase $25 worth of Reduced Shakespeare merchandise. Still a bargain, at any price.

These masters of compression, who, in past tenures at the Kennedy Center, gave us the Bible in two acts (Old Testament, intermission, New Testament), the complete works of Shakespeare and a rundown of the past 2,000 years (the delightful “Millennium Musical”), have now turned their short attention span to the great books.

With a cartoony library set as a backdrop, the Professor (Austin Tichenor), the Coach (Reed Martin), and the Student Teacher (Matthew Croke) use props, silly wigs, spit takes and drag to illustrate such classics as “Moby Dick,” “War and Peace” and “Green Eggs and Ham.” This being a Reduced Shakespeare show, there isn’t an abundance of respect for these works of literature.

Instead, you get boatloads of gags, some cheap. For example, Achilles suffers “the agony of de-feet” — skits and songs you don’t need Cliff Notes to understand.

The works of Charles Dickens have been annotated into a soap opera titled “Great Expectorations,” where Jacob Marley is a reggae pioneer and Charles Darnay delivers “the best of times, worst of times” speech while wistfully yearning to return to the fictional soaps town of Port Charles.

The whistle-loving Coach diagrams “Little Women” on a chalkboard as if it were a strategy for winning the World Series, and the Professor smushes together all the great poems into one hilarious medley where Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Xanadu” is smashed up against Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric.” Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf are contestants in a bachelorette dating game, while “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” have all the poetry and exposition snipped out, leaving just the violence, the sex and the monsters.

Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” is reinterpreted by a trigger-happy Ernest Hemingway who shoots everything in sight, even the fish in Walden pond. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is presented with only the inner monologues, which quickly unravel as the interior voices start to rebel and argue among themselves.

One of the funniest and fastest bits comes near the end, when Mr. Croke is called upon to sum up the remaining books in one sentence, which he does nimbly and smartly, reducing Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” to “It’s good to be alone” and “The Great Gatsby” to “It’s good to be rich.” All three players exhibit rowdy enthusiasm and inventiveness, whether they are lovingly purloining “Don Quixote” or “Plato’s Republic.” They appear to have not only actually read the great books, but know their essence and what can be skewered.

“All the Great Books” is great fun for students of all ages, but one note of caution: don’t be late unless you want to unexpectedly become part of the show. The Reduced Shakespeare Company lives for tardy audience members —”Did you bring a note?” Mr. Tichenor roared at a family trying to creep into their seats — and the latecomers became the butt of jokes throughout the night. So be on time, be prepared and who knows, you might learn something.

***1/2

WHAT: “The Reduced Shakespeare Company: All the Great Books”

WHERE: Terrace Theatre, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 2.

TICKETS: $36 to $41

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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