Seven years ago when I was living in London, I was talked into seeing a show then playing at the Arts Theater. My reluctance was twofold: The show was being performed by a trio of Americans (for whom I had an immediate antipathy as only an aspiring expatriate can), and it was a humorous reduction of the plays of William Shakespeare, a comic riff already slightly tired when Tom Stoppard had written the definitive version, The 15 Minute Hamlet, 20 years previously.
The Millennium Musical
Seattle Repertory Theater till January 22
But you know what? The three-member troupe of the Reduced Shakespeare Company was truly funny. Despite being (as it turned out) years into their run, the humor felt spontaneous, the gags were occasionally obvious but invariably slick, and, above all, they had a winning comic conceit: We're a bunch of dummies who don't know the first thing about Shakespeare.
Out of this unlikely acorn quite a sizable oak has grown, with the company performing all over the world and also knocking down to size American history, the Bible, Wagner's Ring cycle, and now, via the form of a musical, the last thousand years. But judging from The Millennium Musical, currently at the Seattle Repertory Theater, they used up all their good material some time ago. It is perhaps the least amusing and most amateurish show to grace the Rep's stage in, well, I can't vouch for the millennium, but I will say in my memory.
The opening number is "a disco parody"—and it's all downhill from there. The three members of this touring cast (Reed Martin, John David Pohlhammer, and Taylor Young) aren't exceptional singers or dancers. This would be fine if they were sending up their lack of ability, but instead, they just sort of muddle through as best as they can, with a collection of musical numbers by Nick Graham that are almost uniformly uninspired. The one exception, "Do Let's Be Frank About the Muslims," is inspired; unfortunately, it's specifically "inspired" by Noel Coward's "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans," so much so that it sounds like an uncredited ripoff.
The jokes in this show aren't just unfunny, they're spectacularly unfunny. They're generally the sort of groaners that while perhaps sending an 8-year-old into peals of laughter are the sort of prehumor that one hopefully outgrows, along with habits like watching eight hours of cartoons each Saturday while eating overly sugared cereal. (Here's a sample: Joan of Arc is asked by her voices, "Where are your armies?" "In my sleevies!" she pertly replies.) It's the first show on an Equity stage that I've actually seen use a rubber chicken, googly-eye glasses, and plastic Viking helmets in a non-ironical way. (Or in any way, for that matter.)
What's even more galling is how shopworn the pop-culture references are, including parodies of such hot topics as "Riverdance," Monica Lewinsky, and—believe it or not—2001: A Space Odyssey. There are even jokes about how cheap the Scottish are and what they've got under their kilts. Audience members who are still mourning the cancellation of Laugh-In are in for a treat, which they'll get at such spectacular moments as when the cast sprays the audience with squirt guns. And yes, that is probably the funniest moment of the evening. (My companion suggested that the only "reduced" this show should be advertising is ticket prices.)
The one real question that this production raises is what is it doing in a theater like the Rep? Does this sorry collection of aged skits really represent what subsidized theater is all about? Despite the company's proud claims to long runs at the Kennedy Center in DC and on tour, one can't help but wonder how long this show would have run off the regional circuit and in a commercial house. Foes of the NEA would do well to rally their troops around this sort of mediocrity rather than get all worked up over elephant dung and Karen Finley. If you're a fan of sketch comedy and parody musicals, the good news is that on any night of the week you can see shows at the Crepe De Paris, the Village Theatre, or any number of local fringe houses that are better than this.