The Reduced Shakespeare Company offers the condensed version of human events with History Ain't What It Used to Be: The Complete Millennium Musical

Sep 22, 1999 at 4:00 am
Reductio ad absurdum. In an age of increasingly tiny sound bites ("It depends on what 'is' is"), theatrical troupe the Reduced Shakespeare Company has found a way to turn our diminished attention spans to their own comedic purposes. They present their new opus, History Ain't What It Used to Be: The Complete Millennium Musical, this weekend at Washington University's Edison Theatre. The RSC (grateful for any confusion this might cause with London's Royal Shakespeare Company) began in 1983, when Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor and Adam Long put Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet through a semantic blender, making for, shall we say, a much shorter, but still satisfying, production. Witty mock medievalism went over big on California's renaissance-fair circuit, and before long the partners added Hamlet to their arsenal. "Our approach isn't about being fast," insists Martin. "It's about being concise and getting to the essence of it."

Widespread notice came for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare in 1987. This breathless hour of performance abridged all 39 of the Bard's comedies and tragedies but maintained a central scholarly thesis that serious academics might envy for focus. "We go straight to the sex and killing, which people like to see," Martin explains helpfully. Not satisfied with such a tiny slice of history, the group next took on antiquity, premiering The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) in 1995. Since then, the RSC has traveled worldwide as well as stateside, where they've played at venues as distinguished as Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and even the White House. Their keep-it-moving playwriting philosophy can only have done good in D.C. "We look for long, boring, serious topics we can make short and funny," says Martin.

After 17 years, RSC has even become a franchise of sorts. A company in London doing the troupe's material is now in its fourth year, and two companies stateside are performing the original Shakespeare show. "Clones," Martin says cheerfully. The Shakespeare and Bible shows have been published as scripts with Broadway Play Publishing, and CDs, tapes, posters and T-shirts are also on the menu. "Order now," read the program notes, "because, frankly, we need the money." Tichenor and Martin have also occasionally branched out into criticism, reviewing Mel Gibson's Hamlet for British Vogue. "We wrote, "He strutted better than he fretted,'" says Martin.

For its current offering, RSC have stretched even farther than theatrical or liturgical history and have given themselves 100 minutes to cover the major and memorable events of the last 1,000 years — from the Y1K problem forward, as they'd have it. For the first time, the group has commissioned an outside composer, Nick Graham, who has worked with RSC on their BBC offerings. And they've added a woman, Taylor Young, to the cast (which includes Martin and John David Pohlhammer) "We wanted a female perspective," Martin insists drolly. "Unfortunately, it's mine."

The Complete Millennium Musical is divided into six ages: Dark, Middle, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution and Information Age — in short, "from Beowulf to Baywatch." Asked what these two seemingly disparate cultural artifacts have in common, Martin is quick to respond: "Chicks and bikinis — what people like to see." He's insistent that the early Saxons wore bathing suits, and he's darn convincing. "They were made out of tiger fur," he says. "Like the Raquel Welch poster for One Million Years B.C." Spoofery is all part of the fun, as demonstrated by "Dem Kings" (dem dead kings), which borrows lavishly from the folk tune "Dem Bones." This ditty provides a potted military history covering everything from the early kings of England to the War of the Roses ("there weren't nothing rosy about it") to the Civil War ("brother against brother, sister against mother-in-law, and the American Gladiators against the World Wrestling Federation").

The erudition level of RSC is high, but then, the participants all have advanced degrees and varied interests. Martin didn't even consider a theatrical career until his third year of college at UC-Berkeley. "At that point, I was far into a political-science degree and had a theater minor. But Austin was a history and theater major." After college, Martin spent two years as a clown for Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, where he played 1,000 shows in 84 cities in two years. "Everything from Madison Square Garden to the Oklahoma State Fair," he says. Doubtless such a headlong touring schedule honed his appetite for putting on makeup — and putting on an audience. "My clown name was Rude, and when people asked me, "Why do they call you Rude?' I'd say, "It's none of your damn business.' But it was always mischievous — for families."

Among the influences on RSC are Monty Python's Flying Circus ("There was no one named Monty, no pythons, no one flew, and there was no circus"), and Warner Bros. cartoons of the Chuck Jones era, which satirized high and low culture for a mass audience. "We hope the show plays like the old Warner Bros. cartoons that play to all ages," says Martin. "In this show, the second number has Leif Erickson and Eric the Red, and the song is "The Four Norsemen of the Apocalypse,' and we wear silly outfits. The kids in the audience probably won't know about the Four Horsemen, but that's all right. There's other wordplay that goes on in the song."

That may or may not change as the performance schedule continues. St. Louis is only the most recent stop for Millennium Musical, which was workshopped at the American Stage Festival in New Hampshire and ... Alaska! "The University of Alaska in Homer offered a space," Martin says, which the RSC used for several weeks. "We cut and changed it every night and talked to the audience after the show." Though the show has already toured the U.S. — as well as played the European ground zero of comedy, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival — RSC pays close attention to how audiences react to the jokes. After the show played the Kennedy Center, they traveled to the Fringe and found that, although British audiences embraced the work, "inevitably we find about two dozen references where we say, "Hmmm.'" For the most part, however, RSC material, be it biblical or postmodern, travels very well. "American TV and movies are so prevalent, and the British get most of the references. The British like to see something silly done in an extremely serious manner, and Americans like to see you do something silly with the slightest hint of a twinkle in your eye. It's a slight attitude change."

The Reduced Shakespeare Company performs History Ain't What It Used to Be: The Millennium Musical at 8 p.m. Sept. 24 and 25 at the Edison Theatre, on the Washington University campus, Forsyth and Skinker. Tickets are $25; call 965-6543.