The first American Shakespeare company to claim the distinction of having its entire repertoire booked into London’s West End offers a succinct statement of its artistic philosophy: “To put the shake’ back into Shakespeare.” Indeed, the American RSC Reduced Shakespeare Company, that is does everything succinctly. The three-actor troupe crams all 37 plays plus the sonnets into one athletic and irreverent performance piece of less than two hours.
The open-ended West End run that began March 23 at the Arts Theatre is a tribute to the popularity of the company’s 1991 tour of England, which came on the heels of four well-received engagements at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Jess Borgeson, one of three Converse hightop-shod performers who play all the roles, notes, “English audiences probably like us because we do Shakespeare exactly the way they think three guys from California might be expected to do Shakespeare.”
Their way with the Bard has been described as “high-speed collegiate humor,” “manic silliness,” “a loving subversion which pays tribute to its source while sending it up at the same time” and “one of the funniest shows you are likely to see in your entire lifetime.” Although those kudos all come from Montreal critics, the Reduced Shakespeare Company has garnered similar accolades from American, Australian, Irish and Japanese audiences.
What will London audiences get when they buy tickets to the Yankee RSC? The show has changed little in basic format since its inception in 1981, though audience participation and topical references go a long way toward keeping it fresh. Act 1 incorporates snippets or at least passing mention of 36 plays: Othello becomes a rap song; the histories compress neatly into a football game Reds vs. Whites, with the crown as football; Titus Andronicus metamorphoses into a cooking show, with body parts as the basic ingredients; and a 15-minute Romeo and Juliet anchors the act.
Act 2 belongs to Hamlet: a half-hour version followed by a two-minute reprise then a 30-second encore, capped by a high-speed version played backwards “so you can hear the subliminal satanic messages.” Ophelia’s drowning is represented by a goblet of water dashed in her face; in reverse-action Ophelia spews a mouthful of water into the goblet.
Front-row spectators are shanghaied to stand in for Hamlet and Ophelia while the actors lead the audience in chanting the conflicting instructions of Ophelia’s id, ego and super-ego. In Dublin the trio got a Catholic priest to be Ophelia, and in Kansas City, a pregnant woman. The tenor and length of this audience-participation sequence can vary considerably. Borgeson explains, “If we get to a certain point and the audience giggles, we’ll go one way; if they guffaw, we’ll go another. We know where we’re going to end up, but there are different routes we can take to get there. That’s part of our fun.”
Borgeson got his first taste of reduced Shakespeare at the University of California, Berkeley, when he appeared in The (15-Minute) Dogg’s Troupe Hamlet by Tom Stoppard. Soon he gravitated toward two other mini-Shakespeareans, Daniel Singer author of a four-person Hamlet, and actor Adam Long. In 1987 the trio took its one-hour version of the Complete Works to the Edinburgh Festival. Appearing often outdoors, they learned that there was a clear relationship between fast pacing, the laugh quotient and the number of coins that went into the hat they passed after every performance. That realization spurred the trio to develop their breakneck, laugh-a-second pace.
In 1989, when Singer left the company to take a job at Walt Disney Studios, Borgeson called Reed Martin, a fellow Berkeley classmate who had been on the road for two years as a circus clown with Ringling Brothers. Today the company is a five-person partnership composed of the three performers, costume/prop wizard Sa Thomson and business manager Scott Ewing.
Although much of the show is based upon the performers, personalities, Martin quickly felt at ease with it and contributed material based upon his clown skills: fire-eating, accordion-playing and even tapping out the “William Tell Overture” on the sides of his neck. The three personas, as projected in performance, are finely balanced: the exuberant intellectual Borgeson, the innocent idealist Long and the deadpan pragmatist Martin. Offstage they wear bomber jackets with the company emblem on the back. A circular red-bordered patch on the right arm proclaims “2B,” while the left-arm sports “2B” with a red bar through it.
A Tokyo engagement in 1991 challenged the troupe’s communication skills to the fullest. The best laughs came when they hit or kicked each other, so they found themselves doing a lot of hitting and kicking. After noticing that people would bring their dinners to eat during the performance, Borgeson, Long and Martin decided to incorporate that practice into the performance. They would run out into the audience, take people’s food away from them and eat it on stage. The audience loved it, and Long remembers that as the most popular segment of the show. Martin learned a few Japanese phrases to help explain what they were doing. To introduce the reverse-action Hamlet, he asked someone how to say “We will do it backwards.” In performance, however, his Japanese brought only blank stares. Later he found that what he had said meant, “We will do it behind ourselves.” For the audience-participation sequence, Martin coached the super-ego section of the audience to pronounce “Get thee to a nunnery!” But when he cued them to call out the line at the crucial moment, he was taken aback to hear, from the entire audience in unison, “Get thee to a brewery!”
Between moments like these, the RSC allows audiences only the briefest glimpse of its genuine reverence for the Bard. Amid the hilarity of the trio’s Hamlet send-up, there’s a powerful moment when the tomfoolery skids to a halt, and Long recites simply and guilelessly, without a trace of “interpretation,” Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” sequence. Suddenly the bellylaughs cease, and the audience, seduced by words, holds its collective breath. You know Borgeson is right when he says, “We should probably get over our inferiority complex about playing Shakespeare straight.”