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Sendup of literature has plenty of smarts

Mon., Aug. 27, 2007

The word “intelligent” may not sound right for a play in which one character believes “invincibility” means “nobody can see me.”

Or in which another character recites the famous poem: “Do not go gentle into Gladys Knight.”

However, intelligence is the driving force behind the Actor’s Repertory Theatre’s utterly hilarious parody of literature, “All the Great Books (abridged).” The first-rate three-person comedy ensemble of Patrick Treadway, Reed McColm and Carter J. Davis performed this show with canny comic timing, shrewd good humor and, yes, gleams of actual insight into literature.

Case in point: The extended retelling of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” in which the action is delivered via “internal monologue.” As in “Ulysses,” we get to hear what the characters are thinking, via prerecorded speeches played over the loudspeakers.

Not that it ever gets pretentious. This being the work of Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, those internal monologues often run along the lines of “Does this costume make me look fat?”

Still, this production struck me as consistently more clever and more entertaining than either of the RSC’s other speed-freak parodies, “The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged)” and “The Complete History of America (abridged).” These shows have roots in improv and sketch comedy, and it goes with the territory that not every idea will be brilliant. Case in point: The retelling of “Little Women” through sports metaphors gets a bit labored, even though I just about lost it when McColm said the March sisters included Meg, Amy, Beth, Venus, Serena and Flo-Jo.

Overall, the laughs were surprisingly consistent and not a single idea fell totally flat. Credit for that goes to director Wes Deitrick for finding the nuggets in every sketch and for not automatically pandering for cheap laughs – well, only when called for. Credit also goes to this outstanding trio of seasoned actors, all at the top of their games.

The playwright’s conceit is that the audience is a remedial high school lit class, and the three teachers have been brought in to whip us into shape so we can graduate “in about an hour and 45 minutes.” Unfortunately, the students are stuck with the second string of teachers, the actual English teacher having been tragically “trampled to death at a J.K. Rowling book signing.”

So McColm plays the Coach, a P.E. teacher who has actually read “War and Peace;” Treadway plays the Drama Professor, with a penchant for poetry; and Carter J. Davis plays the Student Teacher, who is excited to learn that “they made a book out of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie!”

They are manifestly supposed to act like morons – their version of Homer was titled the “Idi-Odyssey” – but throughout the entire goofy proceedings I had the distinct impression that these three guys knew what they were talking about. And they certainly know what they are doing when it comes to comic stagecraft.

Anyone who wants to study comic timing should pay particular attention to McColm, who has mastered the deadpan pauses of Jack Benny and Bob Newhart.

Treadway is a master of voices – which comes in handy in a show requiring him to play both Don Quixote and Paris Hilton – as well as an agile physical comedian.

Davis is exceptionally good at playing dumb – which takes brains. He channeled some of Zach Braff’s dorky-but-lovable vibe for his callow character. When he gets the Mouseketeers mixed up with the Three Musketeers, causing someone to call him a “dumb ass,” he zings back triumphantly, “That’s Dumas.”

You have to know your Western canon to get that joke. And that’s why, after an evening of Idi-Odyssey, you’ll walk out feeling pretty darn smart.

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