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All The Great Books [abridged]

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By Reed Martin & Austin Tichenor
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Directed by Reed Martin

Through December 30, 2005

Moby Dick. Little Women. The Odyssey. War and Peace. Does the mere mention of these classic book titles make you cringe with painful high school memories? If so, there may still be hope for youto salvage a little enjoyment out of these classic works by taking in a performance of The Repertory Theatre’s current production, All the Great Books [abridged].

The show is the fifth in a series of [abridged] works by the California-based Reduced Shakespeare Company, and arguably, one of the funniest. The concept of the whole series is to take all the things that the RSC think that you should know about—Shakespeare, the history of America, The Bible, and most recently, Hollywood—and condense all the significant notes into an hour-and-a-half-long presentation. The original writers and actors of the shows generally played themselves or injected themselves into characters that are slight variations on their actual personalities. When the show is performed regionally by actors other than the ones who originated the roles, they too use their own names and transform themselves into these hyper-realized characters. And who better to cast and direct the regional actors in these roles, than one of the guys who originated the show? Meet Reed Martin.

Martin—who co-wrote a bulk of RSC’s canon of shows—was brought to St. Louis by the Rep to direct the most recent entry in the troupe’s series. Great Books debuted in 2002 and plays in repertory with other RSC shows throughout the country. This production featured actors from various parts of the country who were not part of the original show, but who very well could have been. Craig Baldwin, Adam Richman, and Dustin Sullivan had a great connectivity on stage. You could certainly feel that they were having as much fun as it appeared. Their smooth, polished delivery of the script made it seem as if they wrote every word of it. With jokes that were tailored to the St. Louis setting and spontaneous moments happening throughout the show, they produced a product worthy of your hard-earned dollar.

In this show, the audience plays the remedial literature students forced to sit through a class mandatory for graduation, and that graduation will be, “in one hour and forty-five minutes.” We then have time to cram and study as many great books as we can before the test. Professor Baldwin, Coach Richman, and student teacher Dustin guide the class through 89 works of literature that have been deemed “great.” The idea is to encapsulate the essence of each of these books into humorous vignettes that poke fun at the title, the events, or the characters themselves. Tichenor and Martin do great work in constructing this show and weaving bits of one book into the next. Conversely, the three actors in this production also do an amazing job with the material. They perform it like they own it, and their knack for acting like they were improvising was truly cool.

Let me try to explain that last statement: At several points, the actors broke out of their roles of Coach, professor, and teacher to interact with the audience. The first moment came when late-comers to the show (a pet peeve to any actor) were stared down by the three as they filed to their seats, and were grilled as to where they were and why it took them so long to get to the theater. Other moments included when the launching of inflatable balls into the audience, and bringing an unsuspecting audience member up from the house to perform in a sketch. A curious moment came the three seemed to have lost their place in the script. I’ve spoken with a few others that have seen a subsequent show, and they say the same thing happened in their performances. If this was indeed a calculated move on the part of the actors and director, then it was a brilliant idea, and the actors came across as if they really forgot what they were doing, which is a very hard thing to pretend to do.

Back on track, the three race through 89 classic tomes that warrant either a full-blown sketch, complete with props and lights, or a simple one-sentence summary that hilariously captures its theme. The central book that keeps coming back, though, is War and Peace. Being one of the largest novels ever written, the three characters are up to the challenge of retelling the story that has been dubbed the greatest book of all by proxy.

Granted, this show is harmless fun. But it doesn’t qualify as fluff due to the wittiness of the writers and agility of the cast. It’s definitely more of a “fringe-style” theater that is slowly finding its way into larger repertory houses across the country. It doesn’t make you think too hard, and it has great mass appeal. It’s subversive, but not to the point that you couldn’t take your grandmother along with you. The show’s cleverness is never offset by its cuteness.

This work by the RSC is also a much better example of the quality they’re known for than the previous Rep presentation of Completely Hollywood [abridged] that ran in the studio theater in November. Granted, that was a work in progress, and it wasn’t quite fully honed, but Books beats Hollywood by a long shot. For those who really enjoyed the previous production, this will seem like extra sweet icing on the cake.

If after a viewing of this production you’re not inspired to go out and rediscover these classic tales or to read them for the first time… well, I wouldn’t be surprised. But at the very least you can use a line or two in polite conversation at literary events to make it look like you know what you’re talking about. And honestly, isn’t that more useful?

The Repertory Theater of St. Louis continues Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s All the Great Book [abridged] through December 30 on the Browning Mainstage, located at the Loretto-Hilton Center of Performing Arts (130 Edgar Road in Webster Groves). Performance times and dates are as follows: 8 p.m. Dec. 6–9, 13–16, 20–23, and 27–30; 5 & 9 p.m. Dec. 10 & 17; 2 & 7 p.m. Dec. 11 & 18; 1:30 p.m. Dec. 7 & 21; 7 p.m. Dec. 26; and 2 p.m. Dec. 28. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 314-968-4925, or online at www.repstl.org.

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