Much-Abridged Bard, Reduced to the Essence

There’s a warning in the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s theater program. It cautions that the show--a vaudevillian condensation of 33 of the Bard’s plays--is not recommended for those with heart ailments, back problems, English degrees, inner-ear disorders and/or people inclined to motion sickness.

And no wonder. The company members--Jess Borgeson, Adam Long and Daniel Singer--are dedicated to filling each performance with frantic activity. The “reduced” show, which opens at the Coronet Theater in West Hollywood on Tuesday and features 16 comedies, 11 tragedies and six histories, gives the actors an advanced aerobic workout as they tumble, leap and jump. “Spontaneous combustion is our goal,” said Borgeson, 28.

Understandably, since “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” runs only about two hours, not all of the plays are given equal time. “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet” are examined much more closely than, say, “Cymbeline.” And occasionally a character from another era makes an appearance: Godzilla, for example, joins the cast of “Troilus and Cressida.”

There are a few other eccentricities, too. Long, 28, portrays all the female characters, unless someone from the audience has been recruited for the role.


“A lot of people see us attacking one another and it’s very threatening,” Borgeson said. “When you approach them, you see pure terror in their eyes.” Nonetheless, the trio always manages to find a few budding thespians willing to go on stage.

The company was started in 1981. Borgeson and Long, who knew each other from when they attended Newbury Park High School, were in Northern California auditioning for a Renaissance fair there. Singer, who was casting his show, chose Borgeson as Hamlet. Then when the female lead left Singer’s production because of a sprained ankle, Long got his big break. He took her part. They discovered that they enjoyed working together and decided to form a company.

Working outdoors lent itself to broad expression. The wilder the group’s interpretation, the easier it was for them to capture their audience’s attention. So freedom of movement became an integral part of their act when they moved indoors.

“We try to bring the shake back into Shakespeare,” Borgeson said, again chuckling. “Our only choreography is to not run into one another.”


In addition to performing, the three actors, who are based in Los Angeles, are also responsible for writing the abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays and updating their show. They also try to include tidbits of current events into their script. Sometimes local newspaper stories provide the company with inspiration.

Since one part of the show is based on soap operas, it is Singer’s responsibility to keep abreast of everything happening on “General Hospital,” he said. Another portion of their work is simply moment-by-moment improvisation.

Although Long said the show often attracts legitimate theater audiences, all three actors agreed that a person doesn’t have to be familiar with Shakespeare to enjoy a performance.

“It works on so many levels,” said Singer, 29. “We’re even done it for kindergarten children. Lots of people tell us, ‘I’ve always hated Shakespeare. I didn’t think there was fun in it.’ Now they say they can really enjoy Shakespeare. I think we could even replace Cliff Notes.”

The Reduced Shakespeare Company first performed at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival in Scotland in 1987. They were scheduled to do 18 shows over a three-week period. By the fifth show, they were sold out.

This year, the group plans to invade Edinburgh again.

For all their frolicking, there is a serious side to the company members. Borgeson has a degree in English literature, and he specialized in Shakespeare. Singer, at one point in his life, fully intended to become a serious actor and studied quite earnestly. Long was doing summer stock in 1982 before he joined a punk/folk band. “We played punk music with acoustic guitars,” he said. “I quit because it was insignificant. Now I do Shakespeare.”

And as for the future of these three?


“There are a lot of other classics just waiting to be thrashed,” Borgeson said.

“As long as Shakespeare keeps writing plays, we’ll have material to do,” Long added.

“We’re working on a rap version of ‘Othello,’ ” Borgeson noted.