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A Little Bit of 'History' : Reduced Shakespeare Brings Its Irreverent Short Takes on U.S. Events to Fullerton

April 17, 1993|JESS BRAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MALIBU — Theirs was a theatrical success story writ large--through brevity.

With its breakneck, two-hour performances of the Bard's oeuvre, the Reduced Shakespeare Company had sprung from pass-the-hat performances at California Renaissance faires to worldwide tours, crowned with a 50-week run in London's West End.

Its "Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" won the Los Angeles-based company acclaim from quarters ranging from the Village Voice to the London Times. Steady ticket sales provided the troupe's three members a comfortable lifestyle; budding attention from the BBC and other media powers offered the promise of an even brighter future.

Adam Long, the only member to have been with the company since its shaky start 12 years ago, was confident that the troupe would stay on top.

"As long as Shakespeare keeps writing plays," he figured, "we'll have material to do."

But alas and alack, when theater managers began demanding new material from the Reduceds, the company made a disturbing discovery. "Shakespeare," Long realized, " isn't writing any new plays."

So the troupe--whose slapstick, irreverent and yet quite knowing style is more often compared to Monty Python than to that other RSC (the Royal Shakespeare Company)--had to find something other than the works attributed to the Bard of Avon.

And this time, instead of having to compress 37 plays and 154 sonnets into a two-hour performance, "we wanted," Long said, "something manageable."

Thus the Reduced Shakespeare Company's new production, which comes tonight to the Pacific Auditorium in Fullerton: "The Complete History of America (Abridged)."

The two-hour work, which chronicles events from the Ice Age to Desert Storm, was inspired by encounters with foreign audiences whose knowledge of American history often exceeded the performers' own.

In particular, an English tour manager peppered the trio with questions about American history, recalls Reed Martin, a former circus clown who along with Long and Austin Tichenor wrote and performs the new show.

The discussions, Martin said, went something like this:

"'The War of 1812--what was that about?' "

"'Uh, I don't know."'

"I remember feeling so utterly ignorant about it," said Martin, 33, who was graduated from UC Berkeley and earned an MFA at UC San Diego before attending Ringling Bros.' Clown College.

Martin hit the history books and learned it was the British who fought the Americans in the War of 1812 and even burned the White House in the process. Once he knew the answer to the Englishman's question, Martin said, "I went back and beat him up."

Long, Martin and Tichenor then put aside their other experimental scripts, including "A Little Dickens" and "The Short Longfellow," and began to fashion their condensed telling of America's story.

The three pored over history tomes to select little-known episodes of critical importance to the nation's development. Then, Long said, "we tried to forget what we had learned, since we didn't want to start writing material that was so arcane that no one would get it."

As Tichenor, a Berkeley classmate of Martin, explained with some pride, "both Reed and I have advanced degrees, but we write at a third-grade level."

The result is a show that not only tells American history, but does so in a way that Americans of today can understand.

Students, however, might be cautioned before citing the Reduced version on their papers; its highlights include navigator Amerigo Vespucci charting the New World to the theme from "Gilligan's Island," Founding Fathers Jefferson, Franklin and Madison sharing a hearty laugh over the phrase "all men are created equal," and explorers Lewis and Clark appearing as a vaudeville comedy team.

In the the second act, covering the 20th Century, a befrocked villain named "Jedgar Hoover" travels the country to establish Prohibition. Later, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the so-called Atom Spies whose execution in 1953 symbolized Cold War paranoia, are confused with Ethel and Fred Mertz, the well-meaning neighbors on "I Love Lucy."

Throughout, the show evinces a critical view of the conventional telling of the nation's history. The trio sings a politically correct rendition of "The National Anthem," which describes America as a "non-Eurocentric bio-region" and reveals the anagrammatic significance of former Vice President Spiro Agnew's name.

And in perhaps its most significant contribution to scholarship, the show offers a "JFK"-style explanation of the Shot Heard 'Round the World, complete with diagrams, shell casings and a grassy knoll. The shot, in fact, eerily reappears at significant events depicted throughout the show.

"That is something we wanted to share with Americans, the single-bullet theory of all of American history," Long said. "We feel that Oliver Stone didn't go far enough."

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