Reduced Shakespeare Analyzes NPR's 'Character'

The Reduced Shakespeare Company prides itself on reducing Shakespeare to "short, sharp comedies." The three-man comedy troupe has applied its talents to the NPR series In Character, finding a Pandora's box within NPR's own halls.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

For the last several months, NPR's In Character series has examined the impact fictional American characters have on our lives. But for the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the series opened a Pandora's box of competing characters and conflicting egos, all, unfortunately, within the hallowed hallways of NPR itself. For an objective, impartial look into this, we turn to Austin Tichenor, Reed Martin, and Michael Faulkner of the Reduced Shakespeare Company for this report.

Mr. AUSTIN TICHENOR (Performer, Reduced Shakespeare Company): Many people feel that producers of In Character rejected a variety of characters while at the same time allowing pieces devoted to similar characters.

Mr. MICHAEL FAULKNER (Performer, Reduced Shakespeare Company): That's a fair accusation. Did they really need to cover both Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas's character from the movie "Wall Street," and Cookie Monster?

Mr. REED MARTIN (Performer, Reduced Shakespeare Company): Michael, I think it was felt that Gordon Gekko and Cookie Monster are unique and distinct characters.

Mr. FAULKNER: They are. One is a greedy, avaricious creature, symbolic of everything that's negative and nasty about American capitalism. And the other one works on Wall Street.

Mr. TICHENOR: On the other hand, I spoke with NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg, and she actually defended these redundancies.

Mr. TICHENOR: Why did we need to do both Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy, two fictional girl detectives, really? Really, do we need both of those?

NINA TOTENBERG: Uh huh.

Mr. TICHENOR: Oh. Oh, I stand corrected. Why?

TOTENBERG: Well look, you - how many guys have we, you know, spies? I mean, everybody from James Bond to I-don't-know-who, every - they're all - these guys are all over the place. Nobody says, oh gee, we've done too many men spies. We've done too many man detectives. We've done too many men cops. And you are telling me that's too many?

Mr. TICHENOR: You got it with both barrels.

Mr. TICHENOR: Yes. I'd never seen that shade of purple before. That is until I spoke with Robert Siegel, the host of NPR's "All Things Considered." He made an offer NPR was able to refuse.

ROBERT SIEGEL: We should have done Michael Corlione.

Mr. TICHENOR: Absolutely. And why?

SIEGEL: Because I think he is an American icon.

Mr. TICHENOR: It occurs to me it must speak to you personally because I'm sure that you've interviewed people many times where all you wanted to do is shoot them in the head, and they go face first in their clams...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TICHENOR: Reporter Allison Keyes was also upset that her favorite character from "Star Trek" wasn't chosen.

ALLISON KEYES: Lieutenant Ohura, baddest woman on the planet. She's a command officer, you know. Plus, it was the first on-screen interracial kiss with Captain Kirk. And remember "Star Trek IV," when she was, you know, fixing the whale sounds, you know. You're like, look at that. Look at that. All those nails, it's a Klingon ship, and still, she's a bad woman, amazing woman.

Mr. REED: What a geek.

Mr. TICHENOR: She looks hot in that uniform, though.

Mr. FAULKNER: Lieutenant Ohura?

Mr. TICHENOR: No. Allison Keyes.

Mr. MARTIN: It sounds like there was a breakdown in communications.

Mr. TICHENOR: There was, Reed. You'd be surprised how many people didn't understand that the series was spotlighting fictional American characters. Film critic Bob Mondello, for instance.

BOB MONDELLO: All the characters, I think, that are the greatest on the planet are British.

Mr. TICHENOR: Arts correspondent Kim Masters.

KIM MASTERS: Elizabeth Bennett or you know, Elinor Dashwood.

Mr. TICHENOR: Power, money, and influence correspondent Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY: Eeyore. I think he expresses something in all of us. I think everybody has an Eeyore side.

Mr. TICHENOR: The host of NPR's "Day to Day," Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND: I'll give you a hint. It goes to 11.

Mr. TICHENOR: Oh, Nigel Tufnel.

BRAND: Yes.

Mr. TICHENOR: Yes.

BRAND: Got it.

Mr. TICHENOR: Nigel Tufnel, of course, from "Spinal Tap."

BRAND: One of my all-time favorites.

Mr. TICHENOR: But why does Nigel speak to you?

BRAND: I go to 11.

Mr. TICHENOR: NPR listeners need to know this.

BRAND: I go to 11, and I have an interest in haberdashery. I really do.

Mr. TICHENOR: And tight trousers.

BRAND: Tight trousers. Yes.

Mr. TICHENOR: Correspondent Ina Jaffe.

INA JAFFE: Where is Lady Macbeth? Where is Hamlet?

Mr. TICHENOR: And science correspondent David Kestenbaum.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Hamlet. Yeah, I've been talking about Hamlet, really deserves lot more attention. It's just my feelings about my - the ghost. So I see...

Mr. TICHENOR: OK. So this is...

KESTENBAUM: And my desire to dress up in women's clothing.

Mr. TICHENOR: OK. That was more information than I needed.

KESTENBAUM: Definitely.

Mr. TICHENOR: But mostly, people are upset about the characters that the series left out. Again, Kim Masters.

MASTERS: Why Cookie Monster and not Elmo? Because Elmo is good.

Mr. KEVIN CLASH: (As Elmo) Oh, hi. Guess what I was thinking about today?

Mr. TICHENOR: Science correspondent Richard Harris.

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, I think Flipper really was a big oversight.

(Soundbite of dolphin noises)

HARRIS: I think part of what it is we overdid marine mammals too much in the earlier years. We've became known as whale lovers, and I think it really plays to our negative stereotype. I think that's really what happened.

Mr. TICHENOR: The hallways of NPR are churning with anger and bitterness. News and Notes host Tony Cox told me...

TONY COX: I really would have prepared to do George Jefferson. When he said honkey, it just really, you know, you could feel it. You know what I mean?

Mr. TICHENOR: I couldn't even use what Susan Stamberg gave me. My God, the mouth on that woman.

Mr. MARTIN: But they're absolutely right. The list of characters they should have done is endless.

Mr. TICHENOR: Yes. Starting with Rob Petrie from "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Mr. FAULKNER: Or Annie Savoy, Susan Sarandon's character from "Bull Durham."

Mr. MARTIN: John Shaft, the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks.

Mr. FAULKNER: You're damn right.

Mr. MARTIN: Chauncy Gardener.

Mr. TICHENOR: G.I. Joe. Wait, Reed, what did you say?

Mr. MARTIN: Chauncey Gardener from Jerzy Kosinski's novel "Being There." Peter Sellers played him in the movie.

Mr. PETER SELLERS: (As Chauncey Gardener) I like to watch.

Mr. MARTIN: The problem with the In Character series wasn't that they didn't do enough characters. The problem was they did too many. In true Reduced Shakespeare Company tradition, they should have reduced our national experience down to one single fictional American character who represents them all.

Mr. TICHENOR: But Reed, Chauncey Gardener's just a cipher. There's nothing there.

Mr. REED: Au contrair, mon petite fromage. With Chauncey Gardiner, everything's there. Chauncey Gardiner's character is defined by what people think of him. He's the ultimate blank slate.

Mr. FAULKNER: Yes. A tabula Rasa.

Mr. TICHENOR: Yes. A Slate-O Blank-O onto which we can project our hopes, our dreams. Because we know nothing about him, Chauncey becomes anything we want him to be.

Mr. REED: And our reactions to Chauncey Gardiner, like our reactions to the entire In Character series, reveal much about ourselves.

Mr. TICHENOR: And in the case of David Kestenbaum, too much.

Mr. FAULKNER: I'm Michael Faulkner.

Mr. MARTIN: I'm Reed Martin.

Mr. TICHENOR: I like to watch.

ALL: And we are the Reduced Shakespeare Company.

HANSEN: You can weigh in with your own opinions about our In Character series, the characters profiled and the one's that got away, on In Character blog. It's at npr.org/incharacter, all one word. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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