Anyone who has ever crammed for an English lit exam knows that if you’ve waited until the night before the test, there’s no possible way you’re going to finish epic novels like "Don Quixote" "Moby Dick" or "The Scarlet Letter," let alone be able to talk about them intelligently in an essay. And if you haven’t cracked "War and Peace" yet, well ... you might as well sleep in tomorrow, because you are going to fail the test spectacularly. Even the Cliff’s Notes version would probably take a week to get through.
Enter the "bad boys of abridgement," Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor from the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Famous for condensing the entire Shakespeare canon, all of history, the Bible and all of sports into fast-paced, gag-filled, quick-change comedies performed by a handful of actors, the RSC has also tackled "All the Great Books (Abridged)," which runs through Oct. 29 at In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre.
Set in a high school "cafegymnatorium," the audience is told by Coach (Doug Jarecki) that graduation is in a couple of hours, but we all have to pass a remedial English class in order to pick up our diplomas. Without an actual English teacher on hand, Coach is going to drill the basics of 89 great books into our heads, assisted by an eccentric drama professor (Ryan Schabach) and a clueless but well-meaning student teacher (Chris Goode). It’s clear the trio will have its hands full as dozens of books come flying onto the stage and our lesson gets underway.
In the RSC’s first and most popular production, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged," the Bard’s plays are distilled and translated for the audience so they’re easier to understand. The history plays turn into a football game. "Titus Andronicus" becomes a cooking show. "Othello" is done as a rap song.
Similarly here, Jane Austen and George Eliot are presented as contestants on a dating game. Two one-legged sailors square off as characters from "Moby Dick" and "Treasure Island." All of Dickens’s books are smushed together in a mash-up of orphans, cruel adults and bad English accents. "Little Women" is diagrammed on the blackboard in a series of sports plays, and all the great poems are recited in one patchwork quilt of mismatched but familiar verses.
The actors are assisted in their delivery by dozens of props that look like they came straight from the sale bin at the party store, silly superhero costumes, ill-fitting wigs and a set equipped with two doors that are constantly in motion as the three instructors enter and exit with great speed.
And the talented cast gives it their all — focused, funny and confident enough to ad lib with the audience. Doug Jarecki makes a very convincing varsity sports coach, complete with whistle, stopwatch and striped knee socks. He’s old school and no nonsense, and he’s determined to get his team motivated to finish, if not to win any prizes for high SAT scores.
Ryan Schabach’s drama teacher sports a bow tie and an earring – just to let us know he’s a quirky artist at heart. His elastic face contorts into a hundred funny expressions, and his gift for physical comedy makes his shtick look easy. Student teacher Chris Goode could be Wayne and Garth’s younger cousin. (Party time! Excellent!) Part clueless doofus, part untapped genius, he’s an enthusiastic upstart who enjoys mocking Coach – and everything else.
There are opportunities for audience participation, scatological jokes and enough mistaken pronunciations to make Mrs. Malaprop embarrassed. In the midst of this extended vaudeville routine, there are also some moments when real issues are raised, like multiculturalism in the canon; what to do with historically appropriate, but racist language in "Huck Finn"; and schools banning books. These moments are brief – and often drowned out by sophomoric jokes about bodily functions and cultural references from the 1980s.
Three longer sections of the evening focus on the literary behemoths: "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey"; James Joyce’s "Ulysses"; and Tolstoy’s "War and Peace." Are they funny? Yes. How funny? Well, it depends on whether you’ve read the books. And how much you like fart jokes.