Imagine having Little Women explained thoroughly in high school English class using sports metaphors, while other books are acted out with the aid of wigs and costumes probably supplied by a drama teacher. The three teachers in All The Great Books (Abridged) use such methods to explain some of the world’s greatest literature.
Set in a remedial English class one hour and fifteen minutes before graduation, Great Books is the last attempt to make the audience pass the class before it’s too late. This makes the play an interactive event, as the audience is instructed to take an active role in the production as students. The class is taught by The Coach (David M. Jenkins), The Drama Teacher (Shawn Paonessa) and The “Studint” Teacher (Jason Vaughan Evans). The latter is known as the dumb one, but manages to occasionally be struck by bouts of brilliance.
The greatest poets also make an appearance during the “class,” as the teachers combine several lines of famous works into one piece that is part rap, part rock song and part actual poetry.
About mid-way through the first act, two of the actors began to crack up. The laughter threw them all off, but they managed to find their way back to the script after only a few minutes, joking the whole way. The masterful way they knew exactly where to pick up makes one wonder whether it was intentional.
While the other two characters are changing costumes, The “Studint” Teacher (Evans) instructs the audience to sneeze every time Coach says the name Plato in describing the next book, The Works of Plato. Watching The Coach (Jenkins) fluster is hilarious, but a word to the wise: young men should not sit in the front row if they want to stay off the stage and out of a wig.
During intermission, the audience is given their midterm. The teachers ask, “What are the two greatest books ever written and why?” These unscripted answers from the audience range from scholarly to uproarious.
The class learns about three British female writers – Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf – through a game show format similar to Blind Date.
The most theatrical staging is done through the re-telling of War and Peace. The costumes are a bit showier, a Russian accent is used in the actors’ speech and the page number for each action shown is told. Halfway through, however, The Drama Teacher (Paonessa) and The “Studint” Teacher decide they’ve had enough of the long novel and detour into other books, to the coach’s chagrin.
Down to just two minutes left in the play and several more books to get through, The “Studint” Teacher declares he can abridge the rest of the books into one sentence. The other two toss book after book at him and all his summarizations are both true and amusing.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: “Don’t do drugs.”
On The Road by Jack Kerouac: “Do drugs.” He even manages to sum up the movies they throw at him too.
Star Wars: “Vader’s his father.”
Citizen Kane: “Rosebud’s the sled.”
The stage and cast are small, so all the antics are right in viewers’ faces. It’s an entertaining way of learning about 89 of the greatest books without having to actually read them.