Perhaps you’ve heard of the Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC for short – yes, they’re that cheeky). The company began in the 1980s with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) and have parlayed its success into ten full-length productions, at least a couple of which are touring at any given time. They’ve tackled lots of topics beyond Shakespeare: the history of Western civilization, the Bible, even sports.
But, they’ve not tackled the theatre itself, and so Matt Thompson, the artistic director of the newly-professional Point Loma Playhouse, has stepped in to fill the gap. He’s written and directed The Complete History of Theatre (abridged), and its world premiere is now running weekends through June 26.
Much like the RSC, Mr. Thompson has written the piece for three principal performers. Well, there’s also a fourth, Steve Smith, who picks up a variety of other roles, most of them the backstage types (house manager, stage manager, writer, director, producer).
But the three principals are all famous historical theatre figures: the Bard, William “Bill” Shakespeare (Tom Steward); the actress, Sarah Bernhardt (Hilary White); and the teacher/director Constantine Stanislavsky (John Tessmer). Why these three is not entirely clear, especially because by Act 2 they’re all playing multiple characters at breakneck speed.
Shakespeare gets the most play, of course. There’s not much specific about either Bernhardt or Stanislavsky. But, all three have egos, and so the first act is mostly about getting those egos (as well as the ones of all of those backstage types that Mr. Smith plays) to work together so that they can actually get to the business of describing the history of theatre.
Along the way, there are some references to classical ideas about theatre (including a fair-sized excerpt from Aristotle’s Poetics). Authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is referenced but not really discussed (yes, Shakespeare undoubtedly read a lot – or knew people who did – because his locales are often quite accurate, even though he’d never visited them). There’s also some clever (and some not-so-clever) references to playwrights, including an illustration of what happens when the actors run out of words that’s pretty funny.
Speaking of words, the big crisis that drives a need for an intermission is that the play isn’t finished.
In Act 2, the cast gets down to actually reciting a history of theatre. It goes by very quickly, and if you’re not already pretty well versed you may get lost (for example, if you didn’t hear “Ionesco” being announced as an author, would you be likely to figure out that he wrote “Rhinoceros” from the cast miming what looks like a bull fight). If you do catch the references, however, they can be pretty funny. This history mostly represents the western canon; the one eastern inclusion is a parody of Kabuki traditions. It also represents mostly an English-language canon, focusing heavily on the last 60 years.
Most world premieres still need work. This one needs more work than usual.
The cast does its best to sell the material they’ve got. Ms. White has the strongest acting chops, and her male cast mates are sometimes straining to keep up with her.
The production is a hodgepodge of prop and costume pieces that are placed in full sight for easy access. There are a few surprises that are kept off-stage, and they do surprise.
Yet, despite the weaknesses, I’d venture that most everyone in attendance had a good time at opening night. There’s still the warm and friendly feeling that one gets from community theatre, and it’s probably going to take a while before the professional part springs forth full throttle. In the meantime, good efforts matter, and this one’s a good effort.