Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 1999
I hate driving in cities. I grew up in New York City and so I know not only the hazards of vehicular traffic in a concrete jungle, but I know how much faster it is to walk or take the subway. Whenever I drive to a city I park in the suburbs and take the train or the subway downtown. Of course, I try not to drive to a city, any city. I try to take the train or the bus or a plane in the first place. Mass transit always connects to train and bus stations and airports.
So it was pretty amazing that I drove to Boston about five years ago just to go to the theatre. Actually, I forced my husband to drive, and it isn't that amazing that Gail M. Burns would risk life and limb just to sit in a darkened theatre, but anyway, I did it. The excitment that lured me there was the Reduced Shakespeare Company and their production of "The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)" And so it is not any more amazing that I drove to UMass Amherst last night to see them again in their new show "The Complete Millenium Musical (Abridged)".
In case you have never heard of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, they are a comedy act which, since 1981, has been touring the civilized world (or at least the parts of it uncivilized enough to sit through one of their shows) with abridged versions of Shakespeare, U.S. history, the Bible, and now the last millennium. Yup, these folks have made their living on just four plays - with an occasional radio stint for NPR, PRI, or the BBC thrown in for good measure. Shakespeare had to write 36 plays to keep his family in bread and milk, and the cost of living was much lower then.
Well, I won't say that the RSC folks are better writers than The Bard, but they are very often wet-your-pants-funny, and their "reduced" or "abridged" versions of history, literature and the scriptures are abbreviated not only in length, but in theatrical approach. Sets, costumes and lighting are usually minimal, although they sure pulled out all the stops for the millennium last night. And, until this show, the three man troop has been just that - three men. I was astounded to see a woman on the stage in Amherst.
I confess that, after driving all the way in to Boston, I was disappointed by "The Bible". It is not as howlingly funny as their premier opus "The Compleat Works of Wm. Shakespeare (Abridged)" (I have not seen their second work "The Complete History of America (Abridged) although I did buy a copy of the script last night.) So I was pleased that I did not have to drive as far to see "The Millennium Musical" - a two hour review of the highlights of the last 1,000 years. Well, let me tell you, it is worth driving, flying, hitchhiking or being abducted by aliens to get to see this one. And, unfortunately, that is about what you will have to do to get to see it. The RSC seems to have an aversion to the Albany/Berkshire region.
I have not laughed that hard in a theatre in many, many months. As a critic and therefore theoretically a standard bearer for excellence in the theatre, it is embarrassing to admit that I gaffawed loudly over a gag that involved Taylor Young (as Dee, the lone female on stage) putting a rubber chicken in her pants and then saying "I have a chicken in my pants" to which one of the male members of the company inevitably replied "Don't play with it." Yes, I fell for the old ribber-chicken-in-the-pants gag. Now you know my dirty secret - I am just an old vaudevillian at heart.
This is the RSC's first musical, and, thankfully, they didn't write the music. A fellow named Nick Graham did, and much of it is tuneful and funny. The songs in the second act, when everyone in the audience is that much sleepier to start with, leaned a little too strongly towards slow melodic ballads just when we needed some of that disco that opened the show to wake us all up. But thankfully a very funny skit that somehow placed Mamie Eisenhower on the moon with the Apollo astronauts came along to get out blood flowing. "One small step for man..." "But still very difficult in orthopedic shoes" chirped Mamie. Then Mamie and the astronauts wobbled in slow motion out into the audience and sprayed us all liberally with super soakers. That woke everyone up.
Rest assured that if you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, native American, Democrat , Republican, male, female, or a French Impressionist painter you will be offended by some portions of this show. But when the political incorrectness is spread around so liberally you certainly don't feel that your race, sex, or religion is being targeted for specific abuse. And it is all so funny. I loved the French Impressionist painter doing their...um...impressions. Claude Monet was much funnier than I had ever imagined he would be.
There are some really cool costume and prop effects in the scene in which Michaelangelo is shown painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And Reed Martin wearing a bed pan on his head as a space helmet is also pretty cool. Costume kudos go to Sydney Wellen, who also designed the overly flashy and repetitive lighting.
As I said, the RSC is not scheduled to pass this way again anytime soon, but that doesn't mean you can't pester them by e-mail to consider including this area in their next tour. Or that you can't vicariously enjoy them through the recordings and writing available for sale on the Internet.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999