Most of us sat through a required year of high school American history a long time ago. Not-so-scintillating teachers may have dampened our enthusiasm for the subject, rather than making history fun. Condensing the centuries into an antic-filled evening of comedic theater sounds like a delightful way to show how the past is the story of people just like us: full of flaws, foibles and dreams.
That is the promise of The Complete History of America (Abridged), the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s followup to its wildly successful The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). But, while the original feels frisky and fresh, the sequel bogs down in tired humor and a plodding pace. At Lost Nation, director Kim Bent tries to recapture the magic of last year’s rollicking production of Complete Shakespeare. The same merry band of actors make a valiant attempt at America, but their energetic efforts cannot resuscitate comatose material.
Remember the scary shark in Jaws 2? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Sequels are notoriously risky. Most of what goes right in Shakespeare goes wrong in America. The first show concentrates on a few plays and finds clever ways to summarize the others. It revels in self-conscious silliness but maintains an effortless, sure-footed movement.
America, on the other hand, chugs along like a ’73 Pinto: sluggish and erratic. The intro proclaims, “It’s not the length of your history, it’s what you’ve done with it.” Penis jokes and obligatory digs at the French, Spanish and Italians open the show on a briefly auspicious note. A flip chart illustrates that one anagram for SPIRO AGNEW is GROW A PENIS. America bests France by getting the Statue of Liberty in return for Jerry Lewis.
But the pledged 90-minute running time drags into two hours. Many sketches go on way too long, flogging stale jokes and cheesy puns into a Velveeta soup. Much of the comedy comes across as hopelessly dated, even though the the original 1993 script was revised in 2007. Is a dopey George W. Bush misanswering a question still funny? Or has every amateur comic done the same routine at open-mic night — in 2004?
The show sometimes descends beyond corny to a disturbing level of tastelessness. Ronald Reagan’s forgetfulness may have been fodder for laughs when the script was first penned, 11 years before he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps it’s also time to let the “doddering fool with jelly beans” jokes rest in peace.
Near the end of Act I, History reenacts Abraham Lincoln’s murder. A giant, stovepipe-hatted green balloon represents the president’s head. It pops when shot. (The audience gasps.) A disembodied voiceover follows: “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” Lots of us overuse this hoary line, but usually to bitch about a bad day at work, not to mock Abe’s assassination. The script features other cringeworthy moments of presidential homicide humor.
And, after nearly two hours of this often-crude tone, a brief reference to the World Trade Center Towers is utterly out of bounds.
The considerable talents of Eric Love, Aaron Aubrey and Christopher Scheer shine through the dreck. The sprightly twentysomethings mesh well as an ensemble. They display sage comic timing as stuffy founders Madison (Love), Jefferson (Aubrey) and Franklin (Scheer). The procrastinating progenitors puff on pipes of Monticello Gold while hashing out the Bill of Rights, “due tomorrow,” Madison notes. When Madison frets that too many freedoms will lead people to “piss each other off,” Franklin wisely suggests offsetting rights, granting ones “to carry a gun to shoot each other” and to a speedy trial “after they do.”
The old-time radio-show scene, which covers Prohibition through the end of World War II, best shows off the trio’s versatility. Speaking in front of a period microphone, the actors perform a rapid-fire array of vintage character voices and sound effects. Love makes a remarkably communicative horse; Scheer, an authoritative, alliterative announcer and weasely Al Capone; Aubrey, a deliciously long-winded FDR.
Love’s part requires him to play most of the women’s roles. (He did this delightfully in Complete Shakespeare.) But History’s female characters range from banal (Mrs. Amerigo Vespucci) to bizarre (Lucy Ricardo) to borderline racist (Jo Chi Minh). Love works too hard to save these badly written parts, and his excess effort comes off as hammy.
Kim Bent’s uninspired direction means that most scenes unfold with too little movement, stuck at center stage. A few go into frenetic, Keystone Kops overdrive. (Be prepared to get splashed with water.) Donna Stafford’s set includes a Monticello-esque structure that isn’t effectively integrated into the action. Even Cora Fauser’s costumes lack their usual panache. But a four-person team spices up the visuals with witty props, such as Mrs. Vespucci’s holy mackerel.
Even divine intervention by the world’s funniest stuffed fish can’t provide salvation for this script. Why Bent and LNT co-artistic director Kathleen Keenan decided to stage History is a mystery. I bet Love, Aubrey and Scheer could improvise a more creative show from just about anything else. Say, a dictionary of ichthyology?