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Reduced Expectations

December 26, 2007

The Reduced Shakespeare Company brilliantly anticipated society's chronic case of attention deficit disorder. But now the idea is getting old.

I was in my teens when I went to my first Reduced Shakespeare Company show. I clearly recall the experience of sitting in the Arts Theatre in London's West End that fall day in 1992 because I was slogging through a semester of Antony and Cleopatra at the time. I had only been studying the play for a few weeks at school, but Shakespeare's epic about the love affair between two embarrassingly middle-aged people living in the first century B.C. had so far failed to ignite my late-20th-century teenage imagination. I was considerably more interested in unpicking the mysteries of the Smiths lyric, "As Antony said to Cleopatra as he opened a crate of ale/'Some girls are bigger than others,'" than analyzing Enobarbus' speech from Act II, Scene II, about Antony's first sighting of the Egyptian queen. Something about beggars and gold poops. Whatever.

Maybe it was because they were American. Or perhaps I was taken with their codpieces and tights. But watching the three strapping members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company ransack their way through all of Shakespeare's 37 plays — including A&C — in just under 100 minutes got my heart pumping. Growing up in England, I had been duped into thinking of Shakespeare as a holy relic. By distilling the Elizabethan playwright's oeuvre to its most basic substance in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), these blasphemous Yanks managed to turn the Bard into a hot-blooded dramatist right before my eyes. They bound Hamlet in a nutshell, miniaturized the mighty Falstaff, and, best of all, made me see a puddle between Antony's legs instead of an ocean.

Back then, the Reduced Shakespeare Company (or RSC, as the troupe christened itself in mocking deference to that great British bastion of Bardolatry, the Royal Shakespeare Company) was on the way to becoming an international phenomenon. The company was in the middle of its second successful run in the West End and about to premiere a new production, The Complete History of America (abridged). While RSC shows were in demand in cities as far-flung as Melbourne, Tokyo, New York, and Montreal, troupe members were simultaneously launching radio and television careers. They created a six-part radio series for the BBC and penned and performed a 30-minute version of Wagner's Ring Cycle for Britain's Channel 4. By 1996, the RSC had three shows — Shakespeare, History of America, and The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) — playing simultaneously in the West End. These went on to become London's longest-running comedies by the time they closed in 2005.

My postpubescent love affair with the company's work lingered unabashed into the late 1990s when I caught History of America in London shortly before moving to the States. But seeing RSC's work again nearly 10 years later, I can't help but think that its CliffsNotes approach to theatricalizing Western civilization has well and truly run its course. The fact that the two RSC shows currently playing in rotating repertory at San Francisco's Marines Memorial Theatre — Bible and its newest effort, Completely Hollywood (abridged) — are being performed before half-filled houses suggests as much. (I don't have access to box-office statistics, but this was certainly the case on the bustling pre-Christmas Saturday when I caught both productions. Two other local critics acknowledged similarly poor turnout on separate occasions a couple of weeks earlier.)

The problem is partly cultural. Since the Internet and e-mail reached a critical mass of users and exploded into everyday life in the mid-1990s, life has moved into a chaotic gear. Activities that used to take hours or days to perform can now easily be undertaken in a few seconds online. At the same time, our attention spans have slipped. Fewer people are reading books than ever before. Text messaging — or, rather, txt msgng — has practically erased vowels from the English language in a quest for convenience. Even the theater seems to favor short (90 minutes or less) new plays over ones whose length necessitates an intermission.

The founders of RSC brilliantly anticipated society's chronic case of attention deficit disorder when Shakespeare first appeared as a pass-the-hat act at California Renaissance fairs in the early 1980s. But in the intervening years, the trend toward hyperactivity has become so prevalent in popular culture — underpinned by such accelerated artistic endeavors as National Novel Writing Month and the Album-a-Day project as well as zeitgeisty books like James Gleick's Faster — that the market has become thoroughly saturated. Meanwhile, the counterbalancing efforts of the anti-acceleration movement have been equally prominent, with Slow Food restaurants and cookbooks, the Long Now Foundation, and the environmental art of Andy Goldsworthy serving as strong antidotes to the hectic pace of modern life. As a result of this debate, there's very little new to say about our culture's manic speed.

It's not just that the RSC concept has grown tired. The group seems to have run low on creative inspiration. It's telling that of the two shows currently playing in San Francisco, the 10-year-old Bible is much more inspired than Hollywood, which was created only a couple of years ago.

Though riddled with hackneyed moments — such as the actors coming onstage at the start in nude body stockings with big green leaves over their privates — Bible is at some level engaging. Featuring a cavalcade of cartoon-sized Old and New Testament characters, witty songs about the Good Book (such as the one about the complexity of Old Testament family trees in which every other word is "begat"), and punchy jokes (Question: "What is the difference between Ann Coulter and a bucket of crap?" Answer: "The bucket"), the show at least makes for a fun way to fill an hour and a half between buying or exchanging holiday gifts.

Hollywood, however, has little going for it. The show's main conceit is to send up movie clichés by boiling down the art of screenplay writing to a "12-step Hollywood program." The actors manage to touch upon 175 films during the process, although, as with all RSC shows, the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. The jokes never rise above the sophomoric because the comedy relies so heavily on formulaic material. The RSC dubs the show "an experience that will last a lunchtime." All I can say is bring your own sandwiches.

In the second half of Hollywood, the performers explain the meaning of the movie rating PG-13. It stands for "pretty good if you're 13." From personal experience, I think this rating should go on RSC posters. Then again, I wonder how many people born in the 1990s have read the Bible and possess a working knowledge of 20th-century pop culture?



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