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December 13-19, 2006

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Reed Martin

Tome raider: If it's large and serious, Martin can take it apart.

Lit Wit

Sonoman Reed Martin and Co. send up Willy . . . again

By David Templeton

If, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, what's it worth when the picture is that of two guys known around the world for the words they don't use? The math gets tricky when solving fractions of words. That said, an eloquently simple photograph graces the back flap of Sonoma writer-actor Reed Martin and his cohort Austin Tichenor's new book, Reduced Shakespeare: The Attention-Impaired Reader's Guide to the World's Best Playwright [Abridged] (Hyperion; $17.95).

There is Tichenor, professorially adorned in a blue sweater, arms crossed and wearing an expression of dedicated seriousness. Standing just behind him, dressed in a somber suit, is Martin wearing a similarly serious expression largely obscured by the plume of inflated pink bubblegum ballooning from his face. It's as eloquent an image as the Shakespare-in-a-Groucho-mustache logo used by Martin and Tichenor's Reduced Shakespeare Company, the lit-wit troupe who have taken the theatrical axe to such hallowed institutions as Shakespeare's canon, the Bible, American and world history, the great books of literature and Hollywood's favorite flicks.

Reduced Shakespeare Company shows have toured the world, and the Shakespeare show was turned into a BBC radio mini-series that is still rebroadcast now and then almost 15 years later. While the scripts of those stage shows, or most of them, have been published, Reduced Shakespeare, the book, represents the first time the Reduced Duo have shared the stuff that didn't make it into those projects--and a whole lot more.

Crammed with offbeat illustrations, charts, diagrams, lists and quizzes, the book is made-to-order as a gift for anyone who loves Shakespeare, hates Shakespeare, likes the Reduced Shakespeare Co. or just enjoys irreverent fun-poking aimed at lofty subjects. It represents an impressive step toward the mainstream for Martin and Tichenor, who've been weaseling their way into the consciousness of literate humors through regular appearances on NPR's All Things Considered, where they've offered reduced and semiflatulent versions of everything from A Christmas Carol to King Lear. Now that Monty-Python-in-a-library sense of humor is translated into what works simultaneously as a humorous book about Shakespeare and his plays and an entertaining spoof of books about Shakespeare and his plays.

As the authors write in the book's preface, "Somebody, somewhere needs to boil down all the pertinent information [about Shakespeare], into one brilliantly concise, intellectually cogent and entertainingly readable volume.

"Until somebody does that," they add, "we've written this."

Much of the book is inspired nonsense, as with the Bard's "previously undiscovered" to-do list, which tells us that Shakespeare was planning to write a tribute to Queen Elizabeth tentatively titled The Regina Monologues, and includes a reminder to "Take out garbage (including Timon of Athens)."

Succinctly and clearly explaining the difference between a folio and a quarto by offering a visual image of folded paper, the two also offer a funny but genuinely useful guide to distinguishing the comedies from the tragedies from the histories. Simply use what they term the "Couples, Corpses and Crowns" rule: in Shakespeare's comedies, "everyone gets married;" in the tragedies, "everybody dies;" and in the histories, "somebody's named King."

For many, the hot creamy center of the book will be the explorations of the plays, each of which includes a bare-bones plot description with a one-sentence encapsulation that places the plot in a modern context and then suggests a moral for the story. For example, in writing about Macbeth, Martin and Tichenor give us the following:

"Plot: Macbeth, encouraged by three witches and his power-hungry wife, wants to be King of Scotland. He kills Duncan and becomes King himself. Lady Macbeth goes mad and dies. Macbeth is then killed by Macduff.

"One Sentence Plot Encapsulation: Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to be more aggressive in pursuing career options.

"Moral: What goes around comes around."

Sure to be a permanent resident on the shelves of Shakespeare festival bookstores all over the country, this very funny, smart and delightfully dumb book even includes reviews of every movie made from a Shakespeare play, a stunt that leads to one of its best academic groaners, describing Anthony Hopkins' performance in the bloody film Titus as "silence of the Iambs."

If you know anyone who'd understand that joke, then this book is definitely for them.

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