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An irreverent (abridged) look at history

Back in the days of 1981, Daniel Singer created a monster. His 25-minute send-up of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" gave birth to The Reduced Shakespeare Company and attracted the attention of other young comic writers. Over the years the company has lost and gained members, but never lost its sense of humor.

The Oregon Cabaret has already treated its audiences to "The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)" and "The Complete History of America (abridged)." This week the Cabaret will plunge once more into the breach and present The Reduced Shakespeare Company's 90-minute retelling of the march of history, "Western Civilization: The Complete Musical (abridged)." Book and lyrics are by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, original music is composed by Nick Graham, with additional material by Dee Ryan.

The show opens at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 13 and runs at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays with 1 p.m. brunch matinees on Sundays.

OCT Artistic Director Jim Giancarlo is directing and choreographing the show with musical direction by Darcy Danielson. Costume design is by Kerri Lea Robbins. Set and lighting design are by Craig Hudson. Sound design is by Tim Brown. Technical Director is Michael Halderman and the Stage Manager is Kathleen Mahoney.

The opening song says it all: "History ain't what it used to be!"

"It's very eclectic, random, absurdist," Giancarlo said. "It's satirical. It pokes fun at politics, religion and sex. It takes an irreverent approach, but it's all in good fun." Giancarlo has rated the show PG-13 for irreverent humor and sexual references.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is an American troupe that performs unsubtle, fast-paced, seemingly improvisational condensations of huge topics. When it was first written in 1998, "Western Civilization: The Complete Musical (abridged)" was to be the company's millennium show. It joins a growing list of other pieces that take a huge subject and condense it ridiculously into a 90 minute show. In 90 minutes flat The Shakespeare show presented all the works by the Bard. Then there's "All the Great Books (abridged)," "The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)," and "Completely Hollywood (abridged)."

"Western Civilization: The Complete Musical (abridged)" starts with the Vikings at the time of the first Millennium. From there the story moves to the Middle Ages where Joan of Arc and her "voices" are given a contemporary twist and the rats of the Bubonic Plague perform in a rousing rock number.

"I love it because the music was so fun," Giancarlo said. "The tunes are very catchy. There area lot of different genres from country to disco done really well. And there's quite a bit of dancing."

The cast is Jonathan Visser, Caitlin McGinty and Benjamin Scott Kramer. "We needed people not only who could sing and dance really well, but they had to be funny people," Giancarlo said. Visser is known to Cabaret audiences for his portrayals of Evilena in "Snow White and Several Dweebs," Dandini and Stella Rella (Stepmother) in "Cindy Rella" and Zeff in "They Came From Way Out There."

McGinty and Kramer are making their Cabaret debuts. McGinty is from the San Francisco Bay Area and is a graduate of the University of California at Irvine. Kramer is from Philadelphia and is a graduate of the University of the Arts. Giancarlo noted that the process was very collaborative in terms of working things out together.

In the Renaissance we see Michelangelo at work on the Sistine Chapel and Galileo pre-occupied with "heavenly bodies." The Crusades, the Magna Carta, the Inquisition, the Enlightenment, French Impressionists, Disraeli and Thomas Crapper also receive the Reduced Shakespeare Company's comically condensed treatment. Things culminate with the Apollo moon launch and a dialogue between Albert Einstein, Madame Marie Curie and Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project.

Throughout the show the cast continues to ask the burning question: What is the great lesson of history? One of the implied lessons is that the history we learned in school is hardly pure fact. It is often incomplete, biased, oversimplified and sometimes just flat-out wrong.

The other implied lesson is that we shouldn't take any of it too seriously. "Western Civilization: The Complete Musical (abridged)" is history oversimplified, taken to extremes and way over the top. But somewhere in the midst of it all there are truths to be mined.

In addition to the regular performance of the show, the Cabaret is offering pre-show entertainment at about a half-hour before curtain. (7:30 p.m. for evening performances, 12:30 p.m. for Sunday matinees). Audience members will be invited to play a game of "Are You Smarter Than An Actor?" It is an opportunity for select audience members to pit their wits against those of the show's cast in a stimulating intellectual warm-up somewhat similar to the TV show "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth-Grader?"

OCT offers gourmet dinner or brunch with advance reservations. Appetizers, desserts and beverages are also available (no reservations necessary).

Tickets for "Western Civilization: The Complete Musical (abridged)" are $19-$29.

The box office is at First and Hargadine, Ashland. See www.oregoncabaret.com or call 488-2902 (after 11 a.m.).

Van Gogh makes an appearance (briefly) in the satirical musical comedy 'Western Civilization.' - Christopher Briscoe