By the Reduced Shakespeare Company (Adam Long, Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor, with additional material by Matthew Croke)
At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater to August 20
Book and lyrics by Elizabeth Pringle and Christi Stewart-Brown
Music by David Maddox
Directed by David Jackson
Produced by Consenting Adults Theater Company at Church Street Theater to July 30
In the beginning there was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). And it was good. And Shakespeare begat The Complete History of America (Abridged). And that was good, too. And now America has begat (begotten?, begetted?…whatever) The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), and damned if it isn’t the funniest of the lot.
“The Lot?” you say. “The one whose wife turned to salt?” Hmmmm. You must already be in the mood.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company (or, as their passion for abbreviation dictates, “the other RSC”) is at it again, this time in fig leaves and sandals, abridging what they affectionately call “the greatest story ever accepted as fact.” Those who worry that the lads might be skating dangerously near the edge of good taste in their latest outing can rest assured. They never go where Bill Cosby (“What’s a cubit?”) or Danny Kaye (Two By Two) would fear to tread. In fact, the KenCen would probably be smart to pack the Terrace Theater with pastors some Saturday night, and reap parishioners by the busload after the next day’s sermons.
Which is not to say there isn’t a certain sharpness to the show, merely that the company’s barbs tend to be aimed at Rush Limbaugh (to audience cheers on opening night) or the Redskins rather than at religion. Most of the RSC’s jests have at least as much to do with vaudeville as with Scripture—as when miracles are represented by cheesy magic tricks, or the story of the burning bush is accompanied by juggled flaming torches (count the chin-balanced ladder as a free bonus). Sight gags abound, and sound gags, too. And since this chronicle extends all the way back to creation, no joke is too antediluvian to be included.
Each of the RSC trio (trinity?) brings with him his own biblical text. Baldly back-to-basics Reed Martin cites his King James Bible (from which most English versions spring, and which was itself sprung from his hotel room) as the source of a Noah’s ark obsession that leads to an audience-participation “Old McDonald” sing-along. Head-tripper Austin Tichenor relies on Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible for his scholarly digressions (noting, for instance, that if the snake who introduced Eve to apple-nibbling was condemned to crawl on its belly—as punishment—then it must originally have been a lizard). And young Matt, whose grasp of matters literary is often tenuous, brings along a determinedly sunny Children’s Illustrated Bible in which all stories of fratri-, matri-, and patricide end with pony rides and cotton candy in the land of milk and honey.
Matt’s the one who confuses Old Testament Joseph (he of the colorful coat) with New Testament Joseph (he whose wife gave birth to Jesus) and prompts one of the RSC’s typically mind-boggling explanatory raps. Explaining is really what they do best, perhaps because they’re fundamentalists at heart, eager to take Bible stories literally while applying interpretations that are ageless, new age, or just plain underage (“We’re rated PG-13: Pretty good if you’re 13”).
As with many instructors, they don’t always manage their time as well as they’d like. For instance, they spend so much of the first act on the early part of Genesis (“Which most people regard as definitive because they still had Peter Gabriel”) that as intermission approaches, many of the Old Testament’s other books have to be crammed into a single song. The second act begins with three befuddled wise men—who are trying, on an extremely cloudy Christmas Eve, to find a star to follow to the manger—and goes giddily awry from there. Soon the lads are explaining how the saints got their names (St. Elsewhere gives them barely a moment’s pause), wondering whether Rosemary Woods had something to do with an 18-year post-childhood gap in the Jesus story, and even bringing on the Easter Bunny in a gag that miraculously avoids being sacrilegious.
Those who’ve been following the RSC’s work will note certain structural similarities to their earlier shows. All three Abridged‘s are scattershot in their first halves, and devoted to quasi-coherent stories thereafter. In Shakespeare, the lads streamlined the Bard’s comedies into one elaborately plotted farce and dispensed with his history plays in a Tudors vs. Stuarts football game, but ended the evening with an intricately satisfying, 30-minute dissection of Hamlet. History glossed over 11,000 years of America (Ice Age to Civil War) in the first act, then treated the Cold War as a pointed film-noir satire that included Lucy betraying Fred and Ethel Rosenberg to the feds, and identified those responsible for Vietnam as “the Generals… Electric, Dynamic, and Motors.”
In Bible, the Old Testament’s multigenerational sweep and the New Testament’s concentration on a single story pretty much assures a similar basic structure. Which is not to say the lads don’t digress at will, especially when they spot an excuse to use their trademark, patron-dousing squirt guns (floods are big in the first act, baptisms in the second). And since audience participation always takes place after intermission, the Noah/“Old McDonald” bit has to be shoehorned in, out of sequence. None of which seemed to be bothering anyone on opening night. The show may not be as literary as the RSC’s riff on the Bard or as caustic as the company’s take on post-Columbus America, but it’s every bit as uproarious.
It has so many laughs, in fact, that it’s a shame it can’t lend a few to Steak!, the overwritten, surprisingly bland musical that Consenting Adults Theater Company has fashioned from such raw ingredients as sex-starved cowboys and vegetarian cattle rustlers. Now in residence at Church Street Theater, Steak! is the result of two years’ labor by composer David Maddox and author/lyricists Elizabeth Pringle and Christi Stewart-Brown, but feels remarkably like a first draft.
The first few moments set the tone. The title song’s rousing paean to the joys of carniphilia is followed by 10 long minutes of expository chitchat as the authors foolishly try to introduce 10 of the evening’s 12 characters in one fell swoop. Then, at about the moment when either someone sings or the show forfeits its right to be called a musical, the creators insert not a character-defining or plot-advancing number, but a time- wasting lullaby for cows. Even in a less-impatient era (Gershwin musicals once diddled for an act-and-a-half before introducing serious conflicts), this would have been regarded as unnecessarily dilatory.
It helps not at all that the evening’s lyrics are peppered with off-rhymes (“well/meal,” “straight/escape”) and repetition. Nor that the dialogue separating them tends to use punch lines as filler, rather than to make plot points. At three hours, the show is at least a third longer than the material would justify even if it were outrageous. And for the most part—even when the cowpokes arrive at Miss Libby’s S&M Saloon—it isn’t. Sometimes, when the authors have an amusing idea, they don’t seem capable of putting it across theatrically. Wouldn’t you think, for instance, that when a barroom dominatrix sings a ditty called “Submit Your Love to Me” to a chained, feather-boa’d sex-slave, the word “submit” would somehow be highlighted in performance? Well, it isn’t—not by the composer, nor by the director, nor by sweet-voiced Lisette LeCompte, who doesn’t even raise an eyebrow during the chorus to let you know she hears the joke.
Other performers make stabs at enlivening the proceedings with varying degrees of success. Even when surrounded by a lot of random-seeming cavorting, Christopher Lane’s poetry- spouting cowpoke makes more comic hay with his broomstick steed than anyone could reasonably expect (which may be why director David Jackson stages so many of his scenes on horseback). Ian LeValley’s comically coarse cow-molester is also doing credibly funny work, and Nanna Ingvarsson (as a lesbian rustler who doesn’t like to be touched) and Pat Dade (as a big-voiced former slave who hates being relegated to servant roles in cowboy-seducing skits) have their moments.
Richard Dorton’s choreography is reasonably rousing, and the one thing you can say for Bob Justis’ awkwardly massive setting is that for all its bulk, it doesn’t get in the way. Unfortunately, Justis is considerably more adept at masking the four-piece, center-stage band than he is at making visual jokes. On a chuckwagon that’s meant to divide down the middle—half for the guys, half for the gals—he barely does more than supply mismatched wheels.
At the company’s request (management knew the production wasn’t working on opening night, though the daily critics didn’t seem to), I went back to catch Steak! a second time this past weekend. From a performance standpoint, the show was considerably stronger than it had been at the premiere—tighter and more physically assured—but the script was as leaden as ever.