You can't say they don't warn you.
"This show is not recommended for people with inner ear disorders, people who suffer from vertigo, people with back problems, or those with English degrees," cautioned Matt Rippy, one of three actors -- two American, one Canadian -- currently performing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at the Criterion Theatre in London's Piccadilly Circus. With little regard for ceremony, this nervy American import with a 20-year history has stood Shakespeare on his head for five years and counting on his home turf. "You'll see somebody in the front row and you can just tell by that shocked look of dismay about five minutes into it," says Rippy. "They just didn't read the small print or look at the poster."
With nine years of Reduced experience between them, Rippy, Kyle Dadd, and Gary Fanning rely on stamina more than melodrama as they dash through all 37 plays. Well, sort of.
"All 37 plays in 97 minutes," repeats Dadd. "If someone thinks we're going to do that in a particularly serious way, then they have another thing coming. "
"But if these people stick with it, we generally turn them," Rippy continues. "By the end of the show, we can take even the most hardcore audience members who are determined not to crack a smile, and somehow just whip them up in a frenzy."
"The audience, they have no choice," agrees Dadd. "They're coming along on this ride." The Reduced Shakespeare Company got its start as a pass-the-hat act at Los Angeles and San Francisco Renaissance fairs, which allowed performers only 30 minutes or less. Company founders Daniel Singer, Jess Borgeson, and Adam Long managed to squeeze Hamlet into a mere 20 minutes, leaving 10 minutes for the short Romeo and Juliet that soon joined their repertoire. Initially, the RSC performed at these weekend fairs in the summer months only, but in 1987 the trio traveled to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it performed the first one-hour version of The Complete Works. The next decade brought world tours and three more stage shows as well as radio reductions of news events, a condensation of Wagner's Ring Cycle for Britain's Channel Four, and a growing roster of performers. And, while slapstick and mockery have been Reduced's stock-in-trade since the beginning, the show's surprising foundation is awe.
"I think we all love Shakespeare and we approach it with a certain reverence because it's brilliant, brilliant material," says Rippy. "There are a few moments in the show where we let the text speak for itself. It might only speak for itself for about 10 seconds, but I think people walk away thinking, 'That was fun. And actually, maybe there's something to this Bill Shakespeare guy.'"
So much, in fact, that's it's not surprising that it's difficult to fit his complete works into an hour and a half. Inevitably, liberties are taken. Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are performed at a pace more akin to music video than renaissance theatre, Titus Andronicus becomes a cannibalistic cooking show, and the histories morph into a football game of "catch the crown." Anyone who's ever had trouble following the plot line of a Shakespearean comedy will enjoy the company's combined treatment of all 18 that lumps all the cross-dressing cousins, shipwrecked magicians, and besotted royals into one tortured plot.
Although the trio are involved in other Reduced shows, including The Complete History of America (Abridged), The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), and The Millennium, the Shakespeare show remains their favorite.
"Shakespeare is definitely number one, mainly because it's the first one, and the first one is always the best and the most exciting," says Rippy. "People say, 'Don't you get bored doing the same show?' It's never the same show.... There's a basic structure ... but there are plenty of opportunities to have a bit of fun, go off the tracks, and have a laugh with the audience, especially if they're up for it and they're sort of chucking stuff at you and shouting things out. You've got to play with them and chuck stuff back. It's just like real Shakespeare was."
"Except usually the audience was doing that and in this case, it's us," adds Fannin. "Actually, I think [Shakespeare's] Globe Theatre was a rowdy place," Rippy continues. "I don't think that it was a nice, polite, quiet little theater like nowadays, where you sit quietly and respectfully and if someone undoes a candy wrapper then everyone looks and shakes their finger. If William Shakespeare were alive today I think he would recognize what we're doing and might view, perhaps, other serious Shakespearean companies with a raised eyebrow."
To keep the show fresh, the Reduced repertoire is laced with liberal droughts of popular culture. "Shakespeare was writing about current events," says Rippy. "There were loads of references to things going on with the royal family or with other writers.... We think it's stuffy and boring and old nowadays because we don't know these people so we just throw in our own pop references. And I think a few of the old fogies say, 'You can't do that to Shakespeare, you can't throw in modern references!' But we're doing exactly what Shakespeare did."
"Othello is a tough one because there are three of us and we're all white guys," says Dadd, pointing out the obvious. "But we find ways of making it relevant to a modern audience. For instance, we do Othello as a rap."
Another key to the production is the ratio of plays to performers: 37:3. Dadd plays many different roles throughout the show -- "I'm the resident schizophrenic," he says -- while Fannin tackles Hamlet and Rippy sticks to the ladies, donning dresses and tresses for Juliet and Ophelia. While Rippy originates Ophelia, the task of screaming out the depressed maiden's woe ultimately falls to an unsuspecting audience member.
"One day... we got a nun up to be Ophelia," say Fannin. "Just so we could feed her the line, 'Get thee to a nunnery.' "As a matter of fact -- we called her Sister Bob -- Sister Bob came back," adds Rippy. "We were just at the Kennedy Center a few weeks ago ... and on the third night there, we're in the lobby saying goodbye to the audience and signing autographs and Sister Bob comes up to say hello. We were worried that she might sue us or that we were going to burn in hell. Instead, she came back and brought a whole load of her students with her."
The point of the show, say the actors, is to take Shakespeare off his shelf and put him back in the hands of the people. While they're up on stage running amuck in his chapter and verse, they encourage the audience to join the rewrite.
"I like to think of it like three grown men playing in the sandbox, but instead of [playing with] Tonka Toys, we're playing with Shakespeare," said Dadd. "And Shakespeare is dead, so you can just keep on playing with Shakespeare as long as you possibly want to," added Rippy.
"If we break him, we just pick him up and stick him back together with a bit of tape," confirms Dadd.
The payoff for all this silliness is enthusiasm. By taking Shakespeare apart and putting him back together in new and unexpected ways, the Reduced crew opens him up to a whole new audience that might not have known they were interested.
"We get school groups every once in a while, young teenagers," says Fannin. "They're the ones who are the hardest to crack. At the beginning of the show they just sit there with these stone faces, like 'I'm not going to laugh at any of this.'"
Certainly many students have been forced to read through plays that are best experienced live. And while the company's treatment of the plays is anything but faithful, it does capture the energy and wit of a good Shakespearean performance. "So many young people today are taught to sit politely in a theater and I feel like we've done our job if people are shouting to us," says Rippy. "Otherwise it's like watching a museum piece or a movie."
"You might as well be at home watching it on TV," says Fannin. "In Shakespeare's time, people would have been shouting stuff. I think we are sort of going back to that and getting people involved. The audience is the fourth member of the company."
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