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Reviewing 'All the Great Books' in 98 minutes

William ShakespeareJack KerouacOn the Road (movie)

If you've simply been too busy to read all of the world's great literature, the Columbia Festival of the Arts has got a time-saving program for you.

When the three-member Reduced Shakespeare Company performs "All the Great Books (abridged)" on Saturday, June 22 at 8 p.m. at Rouse Theatre, it promises to cram dozens of famous novels into what company member Brent Tubbs describes as a "fast and furious" 98 minutes.

Here's your chance to hear pocket versions of "The Brothers Karamazov," "Little Women," "Don Quixote," "The Odyssey," "Frankenstein," "Oliver Twist" and many more. These comically twisted performers aren't shy about letting you know that Dante's "Divine Comedy" isn't very funny, and Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" is a novel recommending that you take drugs.

Besides unleashing wild literary summaries in loosely linked sketches, there are stand-up comedy one-liners such as: "I was not illiterate ... My parents were married." And you may be pulled into the insane action during an audience participation segment.

Presented as a remedial education class for students cramming to pass an exam, "All the Great Books (abridged)" is par for the course for the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Starting as a pass-the-hat California theater company in 1981, it made a name for itself with "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)." That's the show in which these self-described "madcap men in tights" did 37 Shakespeare plays in 97 minutes.

The decades since then have spawned shows summarizing American history, the Bible, the World of Sports, Western Civilization, Hollywood, Wagner's operatic Ring cycle and Christmas.

These guys obviously don't take anything seriously, and that jesting attitude extends to their own professional careers. The official bio for Tubbs, for instance, states: "Brent's TV and film credits include small roles on shows that are now canceled, and leading roles in films that went nowhere."

In fact, Tubbs started working in theater in Davenport, Iowa, honed his craft with Los Angeles improv gigs including a Second City troupe, and joined Reduced Shakespeare in 2005.

Asked how he prepared for something as ambitious as a great books-summarizing show, Tubbs says in an even tone: "We read every single book in the show." He then laughs and truthfully says: "When I first did this show, there were books I hadn't read and to this day I haven't read all of them. In essence we're doing a sketch of the books, so if you get the gist of it you don't need too much background. We say that the show is accessible to everybody.

"The whole concept of the show is that the audience flunked the regular course and is in a remedial English course and it's 90 minutes until graduation," he explains in a suitably fast-paced way while speaking from his home in Quad Cities, Ill. "We're a professor, a gym coach and a student teacher and we want to teach these books to you."

Tubbs hastens to add that there is method to this madness. The company's shows are carefully scripted and rehearsed, with allowance made for improvisation.

"The whole show is scripted, but there are places where we'll go off script, depending night by night on how we're feeling. We have backgrounds in improv. With all the different costume changes and props, something is bound to happen that we can respond to. It's a melding of improv and theater."

Tubbs recalls a mishap-inspired bit of improv he once did in the company's Hollywood-spoofing show. Playing an all-in-white, racket-wielding tennis player, "I realized that I had put my polo shirt on backwards and so I turned around and held the tennis racket behind my back."

Tubbs has had his share of such quick comebacks during his years touring internationally with the company. Now that he's 30 years old and has three young children, he's increasingly going on tours that don't keep him away from home for too long. Of course, he remains an enterprising showbiz guy. He recalls a performance of the company's Christmas show in which his infant son briefly was carried onstage to play baby Jesus.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company performs "All the Great Books (abridged)" Saturday, June 22, at 8 p.m. at the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road in Columbia. There is a post-performance Q&A with the cast. Tickets are $30- $45. For tickets, call 1-800-955-5566 or go to http://www.tickets.com; for general information about the Columbia Festival of the Arts, call 410-715-3044 or go to http://www.columbiafestival.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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