Humor is zany but also dusty in ‘Great Books’

'Great Books' premiered in 2002, and much of the content could use a spit-shine, perhaps scrubbing references to Dane Cook or 1992’s 'The Mighty Ducks.'

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click to enlarge L-R: Geoffrey Warren Barnes II, Miranda McGee and Justin McCombs - Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
L-R: Geoffrey Warren Barnes II, Miranda McGee and Justin McCombs

When I was younger, my brothers and I had a DVD of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), which we were known to watch two or three times in a single sitting. Too young to know much about Ophelia or Macbeth, we were transfixed by the zany humor and slapstick comedy of the show.

So it was with great joy that I took my seat at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of All the Great Books (abridged), another installment in the Reduced Shakespeare Company legacy. Great Books maintains the hallmarks of the (abridged) productions I remember so fondly: a manic cast, a frenzied script, a constantly broken fourth wall and a subject matter after my own nerdy heart. 

Great Books endeavors to tackle more than 90 books in 90 minutes, in the thin guise of a high school remedial reading class. In reality, the show addresses only a handful of well-worn classics, such as War and Peace and The Odyssey, in any depth, giving just a sentence or two of attention to the other 80 or so. 

But therein lies the genius of the (abridged) packages — audience members who treasure Silas Marner or Middlemarch will delight in the blink-and-you-might-miss-it references, while patrons less versed in the classics will hardly notice that a joke passed them by while being entertained by the physical comedy and pop-culture nods. 

While the high-speed litany of literary references is dizzying and fun, at times the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s writing feels dusty. Great Books premiered in 2002, and much of the content could use a spit-shine, perhaps scrubbing references to Dane Cook or 1992’s The Mighty Ducks. 

I was surprised the Cincy Shakes team did not make more of these adjustments. Anyone who has heard music that director Jeremy Dubin has written for productions knows he has a cunning and literary wit. In fact, many of the best lines in the show are nods to cast member Miranda McGee’s Australian heritage — jokes that I doubt came with the original script. A few additional liberties with the writing might have resulted in a snappier show, as evidenced by the audience reaction to lines about the 2016 election or the Broadway phenomenon Hamilton.

Dated script aside, the show is fast and funny, as should be expected with a cast featuring McGee, Justin McCombs and Geoffrey Warren Barnes II. All three are strong and versatile actors on Cincy Shakes’ stage and beyond, which makes it a delight to see them off of their leashes and yukking it up in a bawdy and lower-brow way. 

“Coach” McGee, who often tucks her Australian lilt under a Shakespearean accent, is full-on Aussie here. She has sharp comedic timing and great rapport with the audience. “Professor” Barnes has been given the straight role in this show, but he repeatedly dances and monologues his way into the spotlight. McCombs plays a barely literate buffoon — a Reduced Shakespeare Company staple — with such a foolish manner that one can hardly remember he recently portrayed Henry V. Together they seem to have a great deal of fun onstage, and their energy is infectious. One example is a scene whose hilarity is wrapped around McCombs doing … nothing. It would be hard to say why his silent approach to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is laugh-out-loud funny, but it had the audience in stitches. 

Be advised that Great Books is less family-friendly than I had anticipated. 

Another surprise was the sales pitch integrated into the ending of the show. The organization is erecting a new theater on Elm Street and enthusiasm for the project is justified. But the last-minute plea for donations took the oomph out of the show’s otherwise lively finale. 

All the Great Books (abridged) is a light, cornball show with high energy and a great cast. The show’s broad humor is easy to find your way into, bookworm or no. Audiences might not gain much new insight into the classics, but if they’re anything like me, they’ll be reminded why they fell in love with Don Quixote or Huckleberry Finn in the first place. 


ALL THE GREAT BOOKS (ABRIDGED) continues through Aug. 13. More info: cincyshakes.com.

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