Of Pigs With Lipstick

Three comic actors breathe life and style into a dud of a play.

I bleed admiration for the brave men of the Public Theatre.

Last week, performing a shabby little play called All the Great Books (Abridged), they worked a minor miracle in front of the most unabashedly indifferent audience ever assembled in a theater. You should have seen them — a surly looking crowd, 11 strong, with an average age somewhere in the low triple digits. A woman in the front row fell asleep early in the first act. She snored. Nobody woke her. It was terrible.

Though they must have been gagging on the smell of Mentadent and formaldehyde and the stubborn, tomb-like silence of the house, the actors rocked and rolled and valiantly struggled to breathe life into perhaps the clumsiest and most ham-handed script of all the clumsy, ham-handed scripts ever created by the crack playwrights of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Bless them, it almost worked.

Kauffman, Kolker, and Levine: Making mincemeat out of Will, Homer, and the rest
Kauffman, Kolker, and Levine: Making mincemeat out of Will, Homer, and the rest

All the Great Books (Abridged) is supposed to be funny. Problem is, the (Abridged) formula has been so pulverized by endless application and repetition that it no longer communicates as anything but formula. Even if you've never seen any of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's six other abridgements, most of these gags feel tired and secondhand. The company's scripts all demand the high-declamatory delivery you'd expect from a bunch of faux-Shakespeareans, but the humor is strictly "pull my finger." Not a winning combo.

You know, though — this might not be an obvious complaint. A lot of people dig this stuff, as is evidenced by the existence and continued success of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) and Western Civilization (Abridged) and The Complete History of America (Abridged) and The Complete Hollywood (Abridged) and The Complete Bible (Abridged). The plays in this list bring happiness to human beings all over the world. There is no good reason for it. People are crazy.

In Great Books, three not-too-bright teachers (the actors) have to acquaint a roomful of not-too-bright students (the audience) with 87 great books in 90 minutes. If you're of a mathematical bent, you'll note that this evens out to one book every 62.068 seconds. Figure that The Iliad and The Odyssey (both funny) and War and Peace (confusing) chew up a total of about 20 minutes and the logistical nightmare of name-dropping the other 84 books in the remaining time suddenly becomes the play's single, overarching concern. Jokes, character, brains — these all go out the window. A man crawls around on the floor crying "I'm a cockroach!" This is the play's recapitulation of The Metamorphosis. It's offensive.

But the thing has its moments. These typically involve weird, almost dadaist word combinations that are too surprising not to be funny. Early on, a character named "Coach" is dissecting Little Women on a dry-erase board, translating the plot into a football diagram. We get this: "Beth herself develops scarlet fever and is penalized 15 yards!"

That's fun. So is a later moment when Coach is addressing a male audience member who's been recruited to portray Virginia Woolf. "Virginia," he says, "If I was a banana, how would you peel me?"

But that's just personal taste peeking through. I find something strangely appealing about a phys-ed teacher hitting on a man in a wig named Virginia Woolf. Always have.

With so many books to name-drop, Great Books must, by necessity, contain a great deal of fast-talking and many, many stabs at humor. These fly fast and furious, and sometimes even the really stupid ones connect. But don't credit the script.

No, sir. All credit must go to the folks at the Public Theatre, the sheer brains and balls and talent of whom nearly manage to redeem the whole star-crossed affair. Director Jerry Jensen has a good feel for the kind of manic pace it takes to bring off this sort of material — he keeps the stage full of movement and the actors keyed up to a Looney Toons-level of hyperactivity that imbues even the script's most cringe-worthy moments with a wild-eyed, frantic charm.

The actors number three, and they're a pleasure. The night I went, it was downright inspirational watching these men gamely chase the laughs as the audience spewed death rays from its cataracts-crusted eyes. Charlie Kauffman's über-queer drama teacher, "The Professor," begins as a mincing parody of all things dumb and gay, somehow making the old stereotype get up and walk. His reading of All the Great Poems is a masterpiece — he takes a supremely random hodgepodge of words, blind-references them, and makes them signify. "I know why the caged bird sings/The body electric!" That doesn't actually mean shit, but for a few moments, it seems to.

Coach is a coach. Portrayed by Joel Kolker, it's another birdshot interpretation aimed at the archetypal, and it's pretty flawless. Unfortunately, archetypal coaches are not ordinarily given to the rapid-fire discussion of heavy Russian lit, so Coach's scripted character development is compromised early on. Kolker compensates with true grit, lots of growling, and liberal use of the same bug-eyed, exasperated expression I remember receiving in high school every time I fell on my ass in kickball.

Noah Levine has the trickiest job. Playing a student teacher named Noah, Levine has no stereotypes to ape and is forced to toggle randomly between the personas of a numbskull kid who doesn't know the difference between invisible and invincible and a brilliant boy who can summarize Thus Spake Zarathustra in four words or less. Levine is brilliant for making this seem perfectly plausible.

These are very talented people, and that's no surprise. The Public Theatre of South Florida has a reputation for creating awe-inspiring work on shoestring budgets in front of not-very-large audiences, and if it weren't for the crappy script, that would certainly be the case here.

 
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