Reduced Shakespeare : The Complete Guide for the Attention-Impaired (Abridged)

by Jay Laird

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday July 26, 2006

The boys are just as funny offstage as they are onstage...
The boys are just as funny offstage as they are onstage...  (Source:Hyperion Books)

First, a disclaimer: I've actually known the Reduced Shakespeare guys on and off since 1987, when I first was spat upon by one of the founding members (Adam Long) as he drowned himself "in reverse" as part of their Renaissance Faire performance of Hamlet.

I'm hoping you'll be curious enough about the reverse drowning to not ask what I was doing at a Renaissance Faire in the first place, but if there's one reason I was glad I attended (besides the excuse to wear tights without having to return to my humiliating ballet classes, but that's another story...) it's to have met these guys. I used to see them when they were in Boston and I was designing their web site (this was back when the Internet bubble was no more than a bit of foam at the lips), and although we've lost touch, I still think they're fantastic.

Now the disclaimer for the disclaimer: what's not to like? Really, and I've tested this on many people, there's no way to walk out of a Reduced show without a smile on your face. Whether it's the tried and true academic tomfoolery of Complete Works of Shakespeare (Reduced), the machine-gun wit (doesn't matter how often you miss; there's enough jokes you'll hit something!) of Complete History of America (Reduced), or the sometimes cringe-inducing (but in a good way) Complete Word of God (Reduced), there's something in every show for everyone, no matter how sacrilegious the entire affair might seem from the outset.

Such is the case with Reduced Shakespeare: The Complete Guide for the Attention-Impaired (Abridged). The jokes range from linguistic lessons ("Which of these words aren't Shakesperean? Accused, amazement, antioxidant...") to postmodernist punning ("To Be: Julius Caesar, Not To Be: Orange Julius") to tabloid ticklers ("Worst Feature [of Julius Caesar]: Shakespeare named two characters after Jennifer Lopez's lovers: Marc Antony and the third spear carrier from the left known as Caius ben Affleckus"). None of it requires a Ph.D. to appreciate (thank goodness, since I don't have one), but some of it may fly in below your humor radar and then come back around for a sneak attack later while you're in the shower.

Starting with the premise that "the entire Shakespeare industry consists of people simply guessing about who Shakespeare was and what he wrote... and we're proud to be a part of it," authors Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor manage to devote over 40 pages to idle speculation about Shakespeare's life, while managing to throw in all the pertinent (or, in their cases impertinent) "true facts" along the way. They then follow up over 50 pages about Shakespeare's plays, summarizing them all with remarkable insight and, of course, many bad jokes. Each play summary ends with a Cliff's Notes-style discussion question, such as "George Lucas's Star Wars prequels were clearly inspired by Henry VI, Part 1, because they're of such similar [bad] quality. Discuss," and "Do you personally know anyone named King Henry? What's she like?"

These major sections are followed by brief explorations of Shakespeare's Sonnets and Poetry (brief, but lengthy compared to the bit in the "Shakespeare (Reduced)" show, in which they pass around index cards for the audience to read at their leisure rather than waste time on performing them), and a study of Acting Shakespeare ("two words: Declaim"). The controversy over who wrote Shakespeare's plays includes betting odds for the academic gamblers, while the Films of William Shakespeare section divides cinematic interpretations into "film versions" and "notable film versions." The mix of scholarship and slapstick is delightful and never at all murky, except to careless readers that might not notice: for example, that one of the authors' bibliographic sources is Maya Angelou's "I know why the caged bard sings".

If you've ever borne a grudge against studying Shakespeare, English Lit departments, or academia in general, this is just the pin you need to burst your favorite Ph.D.'s bubble. And, really, no matter how stuffy they are, they're likely to enjoy it. Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor are a couple of smart cookies, and while the humor is hit-or-miss, it's far from half-baked. Some of their insights border on brilliant. One of my favorites is "Follow the three Cs: Count the Couples, Corpses, and Crowns at the end of a Shakespeare play to figure out if it's a comedy, a tragedy, or a history."

Of course, in addition to my biased appreciation of the boys, there's also my appreciation of the Bard, which may have been ingrained into me from one too many Shakespeare classes as an undergrad. Still, even if you only read West Side Story and just pretended you read the Romeo and Juliet flip-side of the book, or if you cribbed notes on your Hamlet exam, or you don't find anything funny about The Comedy of Errors, you'll find something to laugh with (or at) in this slim and witty tome.

$17.95, Hyperion

When he's not writing reviews, Jay Laird writes games, comics, and the occasional Z-grade suspense film like "The Strangler's Wife". He is the founder of Metaversal Studios, a Boston-based entertainment company.