Sunday, August 26, 2007

Opening-night review of *All the Great Books (abridged)*

at Actors Repertory Theatre through Sept. 9

At opening night of *All the Great Books (abridged)* (at Actors Rep through Sept. 9), the crowd was buzzing with intellectual insecurity: *Have you read many of these books? No, I haven’t read them, either.*
You don’t need to have read the books, people. Relax. Because this is the kind of show that when Poseidon, god of the sea, shows up during the *Odyssey* portion of this madcap dash through 86 books you were assigned and never actually finished, he shows up in a scuba diver’s mask and wearing the cutest little rubber-ducky life preserver.
This show is all quick changes, fright wigs, bad puns, men in drag and sight gags. It’s as if the Three Stooges inserted a lot of literary allusions for the ladies while keeping all the whoopee cushions and eye-poking.
As the nerdy Professor, Patrick Treadway delivers one of the evening’s comedic gems early on. After inadvertently tearing into bits the literary poem he was about to recite, Treadway has to improvise a mashup of whatever lines from whichever poems pop into his beleaguered little head. After starting, out of desperation, with a reference to a certain man from Nantucket, Treadway jumps from Walt Whitman to Dylan Thomas, from Maya Angelou to the Brothers Gibb (“Stayin’ Alive” is all he’s trying to do up there). As an example of how to act flummoxed, desperate, and out of sorts without really being so, Treadway’s fluttery hands and flop sweat are miniature lessons in themselves.
Another sequence has grouchy P.E. coach Reed McColm impersonating Sancho Panza as a sidekick who’s utterly bored with Treadway’s Don Quixote while Carter J. Davis (as the addle-brain Student Teacher) “interprets” their pseudo-Spanish. It’s a travesty (in the laudable literary sense).
After Homer the ancient Greek poet gets confused with Homer Simpson — and his two masterpieces, *The Iliad* and *The Odyssey* are merged into *The Idiotity* — Achilles’ lover Patroclus somehow gets transformed into Patro Claus. McColm plays Santa as a grasping pervert in a little nugget of comedy gold.
Whether he’s projecting a leering grin while flirting with audience members or getting saucer-eyes when it’s clear that his Student Teacher doesn’t know the first thing about literary masterworks, Davis boosts the show’s energy level. His rapid-fire one-liner summaries of one book after another brings on a kind of Cliff’s Notes crescendo in the show’s climax. The result is a production that’s just about as much _fun_ as any I’ve witnessed at ARt.

Director Wes Deitrick mostly just directs traffic and gets out of the way of three actors who are, after all, adept enough at comedy and quite capable of gauging just how far their improv can go. But a little more discipline might have been welcome. McColm in particular seemed unsure of his lines; a few cues seemed to lay around on the floor before anyone would pick them up; and some sections dragged (the “inner monologues” in James Joyce’s *Ulysses,* though clever at first; the too-close-for-comfort sermonizing about whether certain ethnic slurs would or would not be used; and the constant popping out of doors for the long, drawn-out *War and Peace*). There were several moments that felt under-rehearsed; on the other hand, the repetition of a three-weekend run will grease the machinery hoping to crank out one fast-paced zinger after another.
*Great Books* doesn’t present just liberals’ humor, by the way: An opening joke suggests that Karl Marx was deluded, and there’s that entire segment scoffing at our hyper-sensitivity to offending ethnic minorities.
Still, there’s a bit of self-congratulation in shows like this. (*That was an allusion to Proust and I caught it. Did you?*) But there’s also a bit of induced humility: The great writers were just regular guys and gals, and for all the soul-transporting moments in their works, their lives clearly must have trudged through the same mundane concerns that we all do.
It’s fine to feel transported by a frisson of literary splendor, but it’s also fine just to wait for the fart jokes. We’re spiritual, sure — but we have our bodily needs too. I don’t know about you, but I sure hope I picked up enough to do OK on the pop quiz they hand out (literally) at intermission during *All the Great Books.* I really, really, don’t want to have to go through all of *War and Peace* again.


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