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Terse Tales

The masters of abridgment put the big squeeze on 500 years of history

By David Templeton

BEGUN as a pass-the-hat act at various Renaissance Pleasure Faires, the Reduced Shakespeare Company's members hold in common a gung-ho willingness to do almost anything, and a sense of humor that treats slapstick and cornball with the same respect usually reserved for . . . well . . . Shakespeare.

After all, they did it to Will first, condensing all 36 of the Bard's plays into a single performance that lasted 90 minutes. It was a rude and zany thing to do, and more than a little brilliant. It made them famous.

Putting their uniquely comical squeeze on everything from Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol to the United States, they've even gone after God, creating hilarious, fast-paced TV, stage, and radio shows that turn American history, English literature, and the Holy Scriptures into wildly irreverent, fact-mangling theatrical burlesques.

"Oh! Can lightning be far behind?" asks Sonoma writer/performer Reed Martin, throwing his arms up in mock supplication. He is joined by fellow RSC performers Matthew Croke and Phillip Abrams, all taking up the cry, shouting in unison, "Can lightning be far behind?"

Don't look now, but it seems that the lightning has already struck, imbuing each performance with a wild, reckless energy that is nothing less than electrifying, while spurring the actors on to heights of sharp-witted genius whose divine inspiration can be seen on May 28 in a benefit for Sonoma's Sebastiani Theatre.

Entitled The Complete History of America (Abridged), the show will serve as a warm-up for the group's upcoming international tour, which will take the comedic threesome to Israel, England, Scotland, and across the United States.

The trio, which has undergone various personnel shifts over the years (Abrams, in fact, has just joined the group, replacing impending-parent Austin Tichenor), have performed in past months at the Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and even at the White House. Two weeks ago, they returned to Washington to attend ceremonies for the Helen Hayes Theater Awards. They were nominated.

"But the bastards didn't give it to us," Croke gasps in mock disbelief. "They gave it to some other play about Sylvia Plath!"

"Which wasn't nearly as funny as ours," Martin adds, with a grin.

"WE ARE OF THAT unfortunate performance style, like the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Penn & Teller, Avner the Eccentric, and Bill Irwin, that no one has a good name for," Reed says, having had enough of dead poets. "They often call us New Vaudeville."

"Which is the name under which they lump anything that isn't exactly comedy and isn't exactly theater," Croke adds. "It's sketch comedy with a through-line, basically."

"And the through-line is, in the case of the History show, that we will get all the way through American history in just under two hours," Reed continues. "And the other through-line is: Here are three idiots who actually think that's possible."

The shows, though carefully scripted and rehearsed, are structured to offer a few opportunities for the performers to display their often-stunning improvisational skills.

"Late-comers," Croke suggests, as the others nod enthusiastically.

"We harass late-comers," Reed smiles. "We stop the show, and say, 'Where were you?'"

"Then they get wet," Croke explains. "That's one thing our audiences get used to. If you're late, you're gonna get wet!"

"There's a water theme in all of our work," Abrams joins in.

"In The Bible there are baptisms, the parting of the Red Sea," Reed says. "In History, during World War 1, we come out with super soakers."

"Very historically accurate," Croke insists.

"And we spit water a lot," Abrams adds.

"Spitting is very important," Reed nods. "You can't beat the classics."

So what else can be expected from the upcoming History show at the Sebastiani?

They shift in their seats, staring at one another, either unsure where to start or afraid to. "Well," begins Reed, "You'll see the Abraham Lincoln Assassination Ballet. It's very tastefully done."

"We do Lewis and Clark as a vaudeville act," offers Croke. "That's kind of nice."

"Phillip does his moving rendition of a politically correct national anthem using words that are about that long," Reed says, gesturing out with both hands. "What we do is, we cover each time period in the major media of that time."

And what medium is used to describe the aforementioned land-bridge crossing?

"An Indian folk tale, of course," Reed replies.

"With genuine antelope-intestine balloon animals," Abrams continues.

"Like I said," Croke deadpans, "we're very accurate."

Asked if there are any new bits debuting in the show next week, Reed nods. "We have a new Bob Dole joke," he announces proudly.

"We're looking for a good Unabomber joke, but we haven't found one yet," Croke says.

"We're experts on bombers, though," Abrams whispers conspiratorially.

"We bombed in San Diego!" beams Croke.

"And we bombed in Ohio!" adds Reed.

"And now we're going to Israel!" Abrams smiles.

Though the trio make no claims to the historical accuracy of their material, they have spent countless hours researching for the show.

"I've learned a lot doing this show," Abrams admits.

"Really?" Reed asks, sounding surprised. "What have you learned?"

"I've learned that the 16th century lasted 100 years," he points out.

"Well, that's true," Croke replies. "And I've learned that William Shatner wears a hairpiece."

"I've learned that there's a cult of dyslexic Devil worshipers in the Ozarks," Reed chimes in. "And they've sold their souls to Santa. And Phil learned who made George Washington's wooden teeth."

"George Washington Carver!" Abrams exclaims proudly.

Though such historical tomfoolery might be expected to grate on actual historians, the RSC has discovered the exact opposite.

"The scholars love us," Croke shrugs. "They feel we bring history alive."

"In fact," Reed asserts, "though everyone from kids on up find something to like, it's the experts, the Bible scholars, the historians, the English Lit. majors, who really love our shows."

"Of course," Abrams says, "of all the people who come to see us, they're the only ones who actually understand all the inside jokes."

During a performance in Florida, they explain, they came on stage only to be faced by an audience full of retirees.

"These were people who actually lived through our entire second act," Croke laughs.

"But they loved it," Reed adds. "They sat there and said, 'Oh, I remember that!' And fortunately," he laughs, "they thought our version was even funnier than theirs."


The Reduced Shakespeare Company gives its highly informative take on U.S. history on Tuesday, May 28, at 8 p.m. Sebastiani Theatre, on the Plaza, Sonoma. $15. 996-9756.

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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