Director and co-author Reed Martin credits a variety of comic influences, from Buster Keaton to the Smothers Brothers, Stan Freeberg to the Three Stooges. Great Books continues in the tradition of previous (abridged) works which have targeted Shakespeare, the history of America and, most recently, Hollywood (this last was assayed just last month in a Rep Studio production). Martin employs the same basic formula as his cohorts: Three skilled comic actors present the material in a culturally familiar format. In the Compleat Shakespeare, for example, Titus Andronicus is presented as a cooking show. Here George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen are depicted as participants in The Dating Game. The actors throw in topical references (to the Blues season and Meramec Community College), add silly props, bad wigs and lots of opportunities for interplay with the audience and stir in liberal helpings of (often capital-L Liberal) jokes to whip up a delightful theatrical soufflé.
The stage is dumbed down to look like a barren high school auditorium, with the audience cast as remedial students who have an hour and 45 minutes to learn about "all the great books" so they can pass Western Literature and graduate. Our three tutors are a crew of schoolteacher stereotypes: the serious but slightly daft drama teacher, the gung-ho coach and a student teacher who's like totally into current educational trends and political correctness but hasn't actually read the material.
As the Coach, Adam Richman scores with his chalk-talk version of Little Women and his impassioned recitation of events in War and Peace. Craig Baldwin (the Drama Professor) is a daffy Don Quixote and a spot-on William Shatner as Odysseus (yep). Dustin Sullivan is the impish student teacher, still more kid than grownup. He closes the show with a series of one-sentence summaries of books that manages to be funny even if you're not familiar with the stories.
The audience is an integral element: late-comers are needled, midterm exams are given at intermission and one agreeable audience member takes part in the Dating Game. In this sort of comedy, the actors walk a jagged line between the script and the moment sometimes improvising, sometimes revising. This can create some rocky transitions, particularly if one actor is trying to rescue a dying bit while the others move on, but fortunately this trio is comfortable enough with each other to find a humorous way out of their confusion and get the laughs back on track.
Scenic and costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis provides an appropriately blank canvas on which the show writes itself the initially bare stage is soon filled with leftover props, torn papers, confetti, water and lots of bouncing balls. The costumes are cheesy and fun check out the Trojan Horse soft-shoe act and the Superhero feeling of the Oddysey. Peter Sargent's lighting matches the fast-paced humor squares of light bump up and down in the overly dramatic Ulysses, while a cheery patch of light is all that's needed to evoke the forest atmosphere of Walden.
Co-authors Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor have created a contemporary vaudeville show that honors the best of vaudeville tradition a series of short acts, slapstick routines and comic parodies that both involve and entertain. In that spirit, here's the Abridged review of All the Great Books (abridged) :
Don't be late, sneeze on cue, and beware Great Expectorations.