The Reduced Shakespeare Co. takes the Public

For years, the Reduced Shakespeare Co. has performed its abridged comedy shows at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Now, the group takes on the most Pittsburgh-centric topic of all: The Complete World of Sports.

William Shakespeare wrote 38 plays—packed with characters, scene changes, soliloquies and sword fights. In 1981, three actors in California decided to take all of the Bard’s works and condense them into a two-hour comedy show. Thus, the Reduced Shakespeare Co. was born.

Nearly three decades later, RSC is practically a household name. The group travels the world, presenting its breakneck tutorials on enormous topics: the Bible, the history of America and, this year, athletics. The brand-new production, The Complete World of Sports (Abridged), will be performed for a special engagement at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

“There are very few things people take more seriously than their sports,” says Reed Martin, who performs in the show and co-wrote the script with Austin Tichenor. “Honestly, I think Pittsburgh sports fans are as rabid as any others in the country.”

Although RSC is still based in California, the company has a special relationship with the Public, gearing up for its eighth performance at the theater. RSC first performed there in 1995, and the company has been invited back ever since. In 1998, The Complete Millennium Musical (Abridged), a show about the past 1,000 years, received its world premiere at the Public, and, in 2006, RSC presented its American premiere of Completely Hollywood (Abridged).

“They’re extremely charismatic performers,” says Ted Pappas, the Public’s producing artistic director. “They’re also very smart people who like to poke fun at smartness. They play well in Pittsburgh because Pittsburghers are unpretentious, and they appreciate the humor. Our subscribers go wild for them. This is the one group that people ask, ‘When are you bringing them back?’”

The cast is as stripped-down as its shows: There are three actors, and the set is assembled in a single day. Meanwhile, RSC reworks the script to incorporate site-specific jokes. Performers chat with locals about the latest news. “Who’s the unpopular politician? What’s the local scandal?” Martin says. “We can say ‘yinz.’ We know Primanti Bros. There’s always been something happening since we were last there.” The local references are “part of the fun.”

The cast adds the local touch in more ways than one because Martin and his co-stars are very interactive: They often ask the audience to participate and request volunteers to join them onstage. “Also, if someone shows up late for a Chekhov play, the actors don’t give them a hard time like we do,” Martin adds with a laugh.

Sports received its world premiere in Massachusetts, but Pittsburgh is an early stop. The actors of RSC have mastered their breakneck style—with manic pacing and precise diction, they hurl facts, figures and one-liners at the audience. They spring, leap, collapse and disappear backstage. In seconds, they can quick-change from one costume to another and employ a small arsenal of props. Audiences can expect the gamut of bats, balls, jerseys and headgear as the RSCers tackle (if you will) the wide world of sports. When every story is “reduced” and “abridged,” time is of the essence.

The show fills in for the Public’s biggest seller, The Chief, the super-hit solo show starring Tom Atkins. The Chief may be the most successful theatrical production in Pittsburgh history, but Pappas feels confident that Sports will fill its absence. And both Martin and Pappas agree that no town is more appropriate for a sports show than Pittsburgh.

“I have never seen a city that is more democratic in its taste,” Pappas marvels. “A lot of people who have season tickets to the Steelers also have season tickets to the ballet.”

Meanwhile, Martin is happy with how Sports is progressing. “I think it’ll be every bit as big as the Hollywood show,” Martin forecasts. “We have to pick a topic that Austin and I are interested in because we’ll be performing it for a very long time. The public has to be interested in it. International audiences have to be interested in it. I tend to write shows that I would want to see myself.”

(The Complete World of Sports (Abridged). O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., downtown. Jan. 4-9: Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. $15.75-$60.75. Info, tickets: 412/316-1600, ppt.org)

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