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Nothing Sacred

Reduced Shakespeare Company Makes Short Work of the Bible by Keying Into 'Sex, Violence'

November 21, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the beginning . . . Amen!

The Reduced Shakespeare Company's take on the Good Book--"The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)"--isn't quite that short, but the three-man troupe does keep it under two hours. The show's Southern California premiere takes place Friday at Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, as part of Cal State Fullerton's Professional Artists in Residence series; it also plays Pasadena's Caltech on Saturday.

Reader's Digest has nothing on these guys. They perfected the art of reduction in two previous productions, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" and "The Complete History of North America (Abridged)," condensing 36 plays and 200 years respectively.

Oops, make that 50,000 years, "from the Big Bang to Paula Jones," said Reed Martin, "which is more or less the same thing."

The Bible project spans creation through about the 1st Century A.D. "And they don't keep adding onto the Bible like American history," noted Martin, reached by phone at his home in Sonoma. "When it's done, it's done. . . . And, most importantly, we can't be sued by the original authors."

How does the trio--Martin, Matthew Croke and Austin Tichenor--decide what to leave out?

"We cut out all the unimportant words and minor characters and get right to the sex and the killing, which is what people want to see," Martin explained. "When we were asked to come up with a new show, we asked ourselves, 'What's familiar to everybody and loaded with sex and violence?' The obvious answer was the Bible."

That request came at the conclusion of a two-month run of the American history show at the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1994. Presenters expressed an interest in having the actors back and asked if they'd given thought to new material.

The "new vaudevillians" had recently been to Jerusalem and were already toying with the idea of a funny, contemporary but loving tribute to the Greatest Story Ever Told.

The Kennedy Center staff thought it would be a hoot.

"We went through six drafts in six months, then workshopped it in Alaska," Martin recalled. "We figured if the reviews there were no good, who would be any the wiser? They were starved for entertainment. Anything they didn't laugh at, we knew that was out."

The company gave the "The Bible" its premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1995 and began a sold-out, three-month engagement; a six-week run in Pittsburgh followed.

The material is treated with respect: "Someone is watching," Martin pointed out. The show was recently nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for outstanding new play.

The troupe considers it perhaps its most accessible work yet.

"You can't make fun of stories people aren't familiar with," Martin said. "We did way too much research, read dozens of books and commentaries--then went to the Golden Children's Bible and picked out the top 20 stories. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Tower of Babel, Noah--the audience gets involved with Noah. . . . Then in the second act there's this fellow named Jesus; people are familiar with him. . . . "

Who plays whom still hasn't been entirely settled.

"We argue each time about who gets to play Jesus," Martin said. "Austin plays God. And Matt does all the young women--Matt looks good in a dress."

And as for the fine line between good and bad taste?

"We try to do it in as bad a taste as we can," Martin said. "But people aren't so sensitive anymore. We'd love to have some protests but try as we might. . . . The sort of people who would be offended don't come. They've wised up--the more they protest, the more they draw attention. Anyway, it wasn't our mission to mock people's faith; we're not out to trash beliefs.

"It's funny--more people are offended at the American history show. The history show is satire. The Bible show is really a fun romp through the stories. . . .

"Still," he said, "some people don't agree with our politics . . . 'It would be a miracle if you made fun of the Democrats for once'--in the Bible show, we make gentle pokes at conservatives, and somebody actually said that. We said, 'Write your own show!' "

* What: "The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)" by the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

* When: 8 p.m. Friday.

* Where: Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.

* Whereabouts: Take the Riverside (91) Freeway to the Lemon Street exit and head north. Plummer Auditorium is at the corner of Lemon Street and Chapman Avenue.

* Wherewithal: $11-$18.

* Where to call: (714) 773-3371.

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