Michael Faulkner has this to say about how to abridge a literary work:
“You cut out all the minor characters and get straight to the sex and the killing, which is what people really want to see.”
Faulkner is a longtime member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a comedy troupe based in California.
In its 30 years of existence, the company has become increasingly ambitious in its scale of shrinking. The group started with all of Shakespeare’s plays, then moved on to American history, the Bible and sports, among other topics.
Now, in what is possibly their ultimate accomplishment of editing, they’re bringing “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” to the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell.
“‘The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)’ is almost a history of theater,” Faulkner said. “We start with the earliest of jokes. ... These were knock-knock jokes. We cover every genre of comedy we can imagine, from Abraham Lincoln doing stand-up, to vaudeville, to the ancient Greeks, Broadway musicals. We even cover the stuff of nightmares.”
He’s talking about clowns, of course.
“It’s also sort of a lesson for humanity,” Faulkner said. “If the show has a mantra, it’s, ‘Get in, get the laughs, get out.’”
This applies to real life as much as to theater, he said.
The show opens with a man in a black bowler hat, with a book that’s been missing for 2,000 years.
“You’re probably familiar with ‘The Art of War,’ the definitive work on military tactics, written by Sun Tzu,” Faulkner said.
The book in the man’s hands onstage is “The Art of Comedy,” written by Sun Tzu’s younger brother — Ah Tzu.
“Comedy has a very important role in society, because sometimes the only people in society allowed to speak truth to power are the comedians,” Faulkner said. “Look at Shakespeare’s fools. ... The court jester was a very important position in monarchies. They could tell the truth in a funny manner. Sometimes, that’s the only way people can hear the truth.