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At intermission, the guy two seats over leaned across to ask me a question: “Are you a plant?”
It was a question I’d not been asked in more than a decade of theater reviewing.
“I mean,” he clarified, “did they tell you to cheer for the Ravens?”
“Um, no,” I said. “I’m just a Ravens fan.”
Fandom should be expected at a show all about athletics—especially one where audience participation is encouraged. But it doesn’t always work that way. Not when a lone critic can interrupt The Complete World of Sports (abridged) by cheering for her home team.
“The Ravens? Really?” actor Matt Rippy said, departing from the script and starring up at me from the spotlight. He was preparing to go on a riff about other potential literary names for sports teams. “All I said was ‘Ravens’ and you went ‘Woooo!,’” he said. “Why? What are you doing here?”
Apparently he and his two colleagues in the Reduced Shakespeare Company—founders Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor—underestimated the close proximity of Washington and Baltimore. Out-of-towners whose play is currently doing a summer run in D.C., they also seem to have assumed they’d get more traction wearing Redskins jerseys.
The Complete World of Sports (abridged), is the seventh show in the franchise from the guys who got their start with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), a fantastic comedy that’s since become a hit throughout the Anglophone world. But that show has two advantages over Sports. First, parodying Shakespeare plays to these actors’ natural strengths. Second, it has a defined structure: Allude to 36 plays in the first act and race through Hamlet in the second.
Sports, by contrast, is a loosey-goosey mess of gags, many of them laugh-out-loud funny, but many of them also not really about sports. Cheap transitions, oddly timed blackouts, and buzzers abound. To segue between sketches mocking South American sports and March Madness, Martin, still in a sombrero, reads off “Tonight’s Tiger Woods Punchlines.”
Groan. In the opening scenes, the actors mock their own ignorance of sports, adding an air of inauthenticity to the proceedings. Some of the funniest lines have to do with literature, movies, and Star Trek. For example, a dispatch from an “Elizabethan correspondent” brings this revelation from equestrian sports: Richard III has lost his kingdom for a horse. During the literary scoreboard update (which I had the gall to interrupt) word comes that the Baskerville Hounds have killed the Mockingbirds.
This was, I’m told, the first time spontaneous input from a Ravens fan required the troupe to improv, but the show does vary each night. The actors interact with audience, and anyone who arrives late will be berated as if they were David Ortiz opting not to run out a fly ball.
Chances are, many in the audience Sunday—there were more straight men in shorts than you’ll ever see at the Kennedy Center—had watched SportsCenter, and knew about Ortiz’s fly-ball brawl. Which got me thinking: If the goal is to get sports fans to the theater, and you’re a skilled sketch comic, why not keep it current? There was no mention of Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit, or of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s penalty-kick win over Brazil, which had come just hours before curtain.
Oh wait. Women’s soccer did make the show. The evening climaxes with a 32-sport Olympics, made more competitive by audience participation. There’s a slow-mo spurt to a finish line. And then all three middle-aged men rip off their shirts in triumph, revealing…
Extra-large sports bras.
Ha ha. Funny. July 10 was 12th anniversary of that greatest moment in jock-lingerie history, when soccer star Brandi Chastain celebrated by revealing her toned abs on international television. ESPN re-aired that 1999 World Cup game that afternoon to mark the occasion. Heading to the Kennedy Center for The Complete World of Sports certainly made for an amusing evening. But for great athletic theatrics, stick with the networks. Or a stadium.