Peggy Sue Dunigan

All The Great Books (Abridged)

By - Oct 13th, 2008 02:52 pm
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The sound of the bell signals that class is in session. For audiences attending All The Great Books (Abridged) at Tenth Street Theatre this involves participating in a remedial Western literature course taught by In Tandem Theatre Company. The performance proves to be a humorous hour and forty-five minutes during which classical literature clashes with popular culture for the audience’s entertainment and edification.

The production was written by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, with additional material by Matthew Croke and Michael Faulkner. These four men combine their collective training in improvisational comedy and Ringling Brothers and Bailey performances with prestigious credentials from the UC-Berkeley and Boston University. As a result, All The Great Books (Abridged) tries to educate a high school class (played by the audience) on the meaning of 86 literary classics through comedy. Every technique from revisiting the Three Stooges to Saturday Night Live skits are used during the play, which sometimes resembles a three ring circus.

A coach, a professor/drama teacher, and a young student teacher forge ahead through dramatic presentations of Homer, Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Joyce, Thoreau and Tolstoy, among 80 others. While this silly supposition offers an evening of continuous laughter, the script also invites the audience to recall these timeless books and their own high school experiences with them. Doug Jarecki, R. Chris Reeder, and Kevin Rich perform superbly with this material, which in less talented hands might fall on deaf ears. These three actors demonstrate camaraderie on stage that carries the evening, an essential ingredient to dramatizing the 1,000 pages plus of War and Peace in five minutes. Each actor showcases a remarkable gift for improvisation and comedic timing, both as a troupe and on an individual level.

Reeder’s rendition of poetry combined with phrases “Go gentle into this Gladys Knight” resounds with humor as does Jarecki’s explanation of Little Women chalked on a board with football play by play descriptions. Rich’s one sentence summaries of the last twenty books puts a striking finale to the play, even if his character confuses invincible with invisible when discussing Homer’s Odyssey. There’s also timely political commentary injected into the script previewing election year while Chris Flieller provides skillful technical support.

While dispelling the play’s premise that “reading and fun have little to do with literature,” the production also underscores and uncovers the discrepancies between literary knowledge and cultural education, both of which are components to attaining genuine literacy. When one mentions Homer, is it the Greek poet or the character from The Simpsons to which they are referring? Who are the Brothers Grimm, or as the play puts it, The Brothers Gibb?

While Great Books espouses humor, at the end taking it over the top, the evening delves into rethinking these legendary books that defined certain cultural concepts and how pop culture delineates contemporary society. Take a seat for an evening at In Tandem’s Western Literature class and ask yourself the question the play posits when explaining Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol: Were Marley and Scrooge only business partners, or will they end up getting married in San Francisco? VS

In Tandem Theatre Company’s production of All The Great Books (Abridged) continues at the Tenth Street Theatre until October 26. 414-271-1371 or intandemtheater.com

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