The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), playing Oct. 8 at the Sebastiani Theatre.
Reduced Shakespeare takes on the Big Book
By Patrick Sullivan
THEY'VE MADE a splash at the Kennedy Center, been called blasphemous by religious protesters, stolen the show in broadcasts on NPR and the BBC, and wowed the crowd in London and Jerusalem. They've even braved an uncertain welcome in the sunny but conservative city of Texarkana, where liquor sales end at the dusty Texas border. But Reed Martin of the Reduced Shakespeare Company says coming back to play at the Sebastiani Theatre in his hometown of Sonoma is still no walk in the park.
"It's funny, but I do get nervous," Martin says. "I grew up here. Most nights I'm at the theater, I don't know anyone in the audience. Then we do a benefit for the Sebastiani and there are 400 people and I know all of them."
Martin serves as both writer and performer in the unique three-man theatrical troupe, which has built a growing international reputation for ... well ... reducing things. The complete works of William Shakespeare, the history of the United States, and Wagner's bloated Ring Cycle have all come under the company's satirical knife. Now the company is bringing The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) home to Sonoma County.
Whatever the source material, Reduced Shakespeare's method is the same: Take weighty (even ponderous) cultural material that occupies armies of dedicated scholars, and render the whole thing in hilarious fast-forward on the stage. That simple recipe has been packing houses around the world for more than a decade.
"I think we're successful because we just have a really good time doing it," Martin says. "The sloughing around isn't always enjoyable, but those two hours onstage are always fun, and I think people see that."
The company--which was founded by former member Daniel Singer of Santa Rosa--combines slapstick, cross-dressing, and sight gags with more subtle jokes that delight even people who love Shakespeare (or American history) the most. There are no sacred cows, and even the audience itself is fair game.
"If any latecomers come in to the show, we thrash them," Martin says with a laugh. "Or if somebody's crinkling a candy wrapper, well, everybody in the audience is looking at them anyway, so we might as well stop and make a bit of it. ... We come through the fourth wall and just react to whatever's happening."
The act requires an unusual set of skills, to say the least. Ordinary theater hardly prepares someone to bounce around the stage re-enacting the death of Abraham Lincoln at top speed. At first glance, then, Martin's résumé sounds oddly traditional--even stuffy. He has a B.A. in theater and political science and an M.A. in acting. He's even performed in very ordinary productions of Hamlet. As the Reduced Shakespeare folks might say, "Boring!" But then, things get unusual.
"After eight years of university, I ran away and joined the circus to work as a clown," Martin says. "Which left everyone saying to my parents, 'What do you think about that?'"
After two years of clown work, where he learned how to work an audience, Martin fell in with the Reduced Shakespeare and was soon touring the world. Before long, the company was performing in England. But weren't they worried about insulting the Bard in the country of his birth?
"It turns out it's nothing like that," Martin says. "I mean, if anything, the British have had Shakespeare forced upon them even more than people here. And also, as with all of our subjects, it's done affectionately. We're mocking ourselves as much as we're mocking the subject matter. ... I think they're flattered that we spend so much time on it, and we do it the way they think three stupid Americans would do Shakespeare."
THAT'S NOT TO SAY that everyone appreciates Reduced Shakespeare's irreverent approach to the sacred texts. Sign-waving protesters greeted the company's Bible show when it played in Ireland. A lawyer in England tried unsuccessfully to use that country's blasphemy laws to shut down the play. And in Texarkana, some religious students dramatically expressed their distaste for the troupe's unique take on American history.
"One of the speeches in the history show is full of anagrams," Martin recalls. "You rearrange the letters in American and it spells 'I can ream.' You rearrange the letters in George Washington and it spells 'Gaggin' on wet horse.' And if you rearrange the letters in Spiro Agnew, it spells 'Grow a penis.' Right about then, we had 150 home schoolers in the balcony stand up in unison and walk out. So I think we did our job that day."
But although the actors have fun with their source material, Martin says they also show it respect. In particular, he insists that the troupe was careful to make the Bible show "irreverent, but not blasphemous." Religious people, he says, tend to enjoy the performance once they actually see it.
"Opening night in Ireland, we had four clergymen in the audience," Martin says. "Three of them loved it, and one wasn't that tickled by it. I don't know that he found it blasphemous, but I think it just made him sort of uncomfortable. I guess if you're sitting there in collar, every time a joke comes up, everybody looks at you to see if they can laugh."
That respect also means that Reduced Shakespeare gets the facts straight, except when they skew for comic effect. Some even call the company's work educational: Could this be the only way to get modern audiences to flock to see Shakespeare?
"Well, we've had that question in another form," Martin says wryly. "The negative side is 'Are you pandering to people's short attention spans?' ... But I think we get people interested. People who don't have a proclivity won't go see Hamlet anyway. But we do definitely get teachers who tell us that the kids went to see our show and then they wanted to do Romeo and Juliet in the school production."
Controversy, whether educational or religious, is not the main problem facing Reduced Shakespeare. The real challenge, Martin says, is finding new material, new cultural monuments to cut down to size. So what's next on the troupe's agenda?
"I just got back from Los Angeles, from rehearsing our new show, our first musical," Martin says. "We're condensing the Millennium. We're calling it The Millennium Musical, Abridged to the 21st Century."
The Reduced Shakespeare Company will perform The Bible--The Complete Word of God (Abridged) on Oct. 8 at 8 p.m. at the Sebastiani Theatre, on the downtown plaza, Sonoma. Tickets are $17 for adults, $12 for seniors and for children 12 and under. 996-2020.
From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.