Big topics don’t scare the Reduced Shakespeare Company. This troupe of neo-vaudevilleans, who are best known for their blitz edit of all of Shakespeare’s plays, have been presenting compressed theatrical revues for the past 20 years. After they’d cut their teeth on the Bard, no field of human endeavor was too vast for the troupe’s winning brand of wordplay, tomfoolery, and preposterous costumes and props. When RSC distilled The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), Abraham was distinctly Lincoln-esque, with stovepipe hat and beard. In The Complete Millennium Musical (abridged), the competing voices in Joan of Arc’s head turned into an impromptu talk show.
But now two of the three founding fathers, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, have returned to their " literary roots " to create the new The Reducers: All the Great Books (abridged). That " (abridged) " is an RSC trademark and as crucial to its work as a chopping knife is to Emeril. " Of the 83 books in the show, I think we’ve heard of most of them, " Tichenor explains. This revue begins with the work of Homer. You know, " the big yellow man with spiky hair. " Badumbum. In true RSC fashion, the adapters put the squeeze even on literature’s earliest exemplars: " The Iliad and the Odyssey we do as one piece which we call the Idiodyssy. "
The Reducers takes pains to acknowledge a multicultural array of writers and their emblematic work. These include Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Only Dickens prompts the customary compulsive completism, as The Reducers includes " everything he ever wrote. Most of it is good. " Modern references include Frost, Eliot, and " that other great 20th-century author, Jacqueline Suzann. "
Although Sylvia Plath didn’t make the cut, Tichenor insists that our literary heritage is " not just dead white men. We actually have an argument about that on stage, and of course, the show has the same subtext of all our shows, which is that we three idiots think you can actually do all the great books in one evening. We also made a choice not to cover books like Lord of the Rings or the Communist Manifesto, because we didn’t want to cover any fantasy. "
Tichenor’s Web biography states that he’s " an intellectual welterweight . . . despite three very expensive degrees " that include an MFA in directing from Boston University. His favorite part of creating The Reducers was getting to read so much. " Part of what we do in our shows is cover material everyone should know about but resisted — everyone says you must know it or you’re less than a human being. "
And though its style may be minimalist (Tichenor promises just one " big animal costume " ), RSC reaches an enormous audience. Currently, the group have three companies performing the repertory. " There’s one based in London doing Shakespeare and The Complete History of America and another company touring The Bible‚ and then [there’s] the company that’ll tour Lowell. " (This one includes Reducers co-author Martin, a former Ringling Brothers clown with a foghorn voice and a palette of double-takes.) Another company is planned for Australia, though the group will probably give the continent of Antarctica a miss, since " playing for penguins is not our thing. "
The Reducers: All The Great Books (abridged) is at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, November 12 through 18. Tickets are $37; call (978) 454-3926.