The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s All The Great Books (abridged) debuted 15 years ago. Since then, the light and breezy sketch comedy script has been produced by many, many other theatre groups. In Tandem Theatre brings it to the stage once more as it presents the fun, little raggedy roll through spoofery of fine literature in its cozy space downtown not far from the historic main branch of the Milwaukee Public Library.
The literary spoof sketches area arranged around the format of a whirlwind remedial high school literature class not more than a few hours before graduation. Director Chris Flieller has done a really clever job of helping to foster a feeling of the standard, generic American high school feel about the production. The “class” is set in a high school gymnasium. Designer Rick Graham’s set vividly references an old public high school gym.
The floorboards have been painstakingly painted onto the floor of the theatre. There’s a basketball hoop. A facade over one of the walls gives it a solid brick visual treatment. A few letters on the sign on the girl’s locker room have been modified to spell out something distinctly different. Sit in the front row and there’s a well-worn, lived-in public school atmosphere. It’s actually kind of disorienting because the space is so clearly a theatre set and yet so strongly reminiscent of a classic high school gym.
The first character onstage ratchets-up the vividly scholastic feel of the atmosphere. Doug Jarecki is brilliantly comic as the Coach. The public high school gym coach is such a heavily-worn comic stereotype that it can come across as...stultifying if it’s taken to an extreme. Jarecki exudes a kind of casual confidence as Coach. Jarecki is playing Coach as a character and not a stereotype. In the process he’s making a sketch comedy archetype ALOT more funny than it has any right to be. There are precise gestures, postures and phrases that feel remarkably authentic in Rasmussen’s set. Kathy Smith’s precise execution in Coach’s costuming adds to the insidiously sneaky atmosphere of public school.
Ryan Schabach is the next to enter. He’s playing a passionate and passionately awkward drama professor. Chris Goode rounds out the class as a semi-vacuous student teacher. Jarecki, Schabach and Goode are solidly comic together as they barrel through some of history’s most canonized literature. The feel of an RSC script is there from the rapid-fire modulation of the comedy to the disparate array of different props and scraps of costuming.
By the time all the actors are onstage and the audience has risen for the Pledge of Allegiance, the full realization of the atmosphere is positively chilling. It’s weird thinking about how vividl the atmosphere sets-in with such simple background. You’re in a performance space in the back of a church next to the highway, but you might as well be in any high school gym in the country. It kind of makes sense that a public school atmosphere would be so easy to emulate...it’s so simple and utilitarian and so...completely unlike any other American atmosphere.
The spirit of the script remains pretty strong 15 years after it debuted. Some of the pop cultural references feel hopelessly dated, but the cast makes it fun. Weird references, offbeat jokes and rapid-fire pop comedy have proliferated A LOT over the course of the past 15 years. It’s been a decade and a half and an RSC script starts to feel like retro comedy. The constellation of punchlines make the show feel a bit like a period piece where the period is only 15 years ago. It’s weird and pleasantly disorienting. Boomer/older X-er jokes play like comfort comedy in the post-modern world of a million different late night news satire shows and a restless roll of “funny” memes on the social media that lurks in everyone’s pockets. Humor has gotten so impossibly complicated that it’s actually kind of refreshing to hear someone earnestly deliver a humble Gilligan’s Island reference. In the midst of a strikingly vivid public school atmosphere this comedy feels like home.
In Tandem Theatre’s production of All The Great Books (abridged) runs through Oct. 29 at the In Tandem Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit In Tandem online.
For the production, In Tandem is partnering with Literacy Services of Wisconsin. They are collecting books for all reading levels. Please consider bringing along a few books and donating when you attend. The importance of their mission cannot be overstated.