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Laughing at U.S. and With U.S.
By James Yeara

The Complete History of America—Abridged

By Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor

Reduced Shakespeare Company, Capital Repertory Theatre, through June 5

‘Dying is easy; comedy is hard,” the great British actor Sir Donald Wolfitt is alleged to have said on his deathbed. If true, the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s present production at Capital Repertory Theatre is zircon hard. The Complete History of America—Abridged is in the same vein of their earlier hit romp, The Complete Works of Wm. Shakespeare—Abridged, but lacks the latter work’s manic wit and poetic will. There’s nothing approaching the lunacy of Titus Andronicus as a cooking show or the “Othello rap,” but The Complete History pleases with its classic three-clown cast, filling the two-hour running time with a mother lode of comic misprisions (“Didn’t you go to college, stupid?” high-status clown asks the lowest-status clown, who replies, “Yeah, but I came out the same way”), non sequiturs (“America the Beautiful” sung as “Oh, non-Eurocentric bioregion”), alienation effect (if you’re late, you’ll find the fourth wall has been wisely exploded, so expect to be part of the show), and lazzi (wear something waterproof because the three so liberally use water pistols that watching Complete History is like sitting in the first row at Sea World, minus that fish smell).

Rotating five actors (Dominic Conti, Michael Faulkner, Jerry Kernion, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor) through this three-performer show, done before a set consisting of a huge replica of the original Stars and Stripes flag, a generic textbook timeline of American history, and a flip chart, The Complete History needs the quick pace and the high energy that fresh actors give it.

>From the opening announcement of Nike’s corporate sponsorship, the audience responds with laughter; if you like biting humor, this is a show for you. If you like classic comedy routines, this is a show for you. If you like your laughs shaken, not stirred, with a twist of Monty Python, a dash of The Daily Show, and lots of water, this is your show of shows. If you’re looking for Neil Simon-esque, dinner-theater-type laughs, keep looking. And if you’re easily offended, stay home and give the neighbors more to gossip about.

The Complete History earns its dash. Act I moves from Amerigo Vespucci’s “Maps-R-Us” scene through the Civil War (who knew popping a confetti-filled balloon to depict Lincoln’s assassination would get laughs?) in 52 minutes, with frequent stops for digs at Columbus’ bloody business, and a grin-inducing vaudevillian scene of that comic duo, Lewis and Clark. There’s even a knee- slapper for conspiracy fans when the dots between presidential assassinations are connected, including an explanation of the Satanic symbolism of the name of the only president since James Monroe elected in a “zero” year to not die in office. Again, if you’re easily offended by having to think and laugh, check out what’s playing at the local McTheater instead.

While Act II is shorter, the two audience-participation scenes are a drag on the show’s energy, and the cast seemed reserved, especially during the very timid George H.W. Bush Q & A. Maybe the real one is too tragiccomic, like a Beckett nightmare, for laughter in the ersatz one, or maybe a talking cowboy hat is only funny in Doonesbury. Complete History regains its comic footing with an inspired melding of film noir and American history, featuring private eye Spade Diamond, Lucille Ball, Conspirator Guy and a series of groan-inducing puns that don’t get any worse than the line, “Lucy in disguise with Diamond.”

Sigmund Freud wrote that humor satisfies our innermost desires, so true comedies strike at a deeper level than the faux comedy of pandering dinner- theater fluff. There’s no finer example of this than the conclusion of The Complete History, when American history is done backwards. The 60-second routine gives the audience something to laugh at, and something else: a happy ending that makes you think. That’s the stuff Sir Wolfitt was talking about with his last breath.

Men Are From Knightsbridge, Women Are From East End

Pygmalion

By George Bernard Shaw, Directed by Derek Campbell

The Theater Company at Hubbard Hall, through May 29

Pygmalion is very funny and much sharper than its better-known incarnation, My Fair Lady. Director Derek Campbell and the company at Hubbard Hall turn the story of a “phonetic enthusiast” and the flower seller he trains to pass as a duchess into a near-farce, full of broad acting and eccentric characters. But Shaw’s commentary about social class and manners comes through much more clearly than in the musical—and amazingly, instead of weighing the play down it actually provides the bulk of its humor and vitality.

Thanks to Shaw’s modern sensibility and the solid acting of the cast, the show is full of delicious moments, and its observations of male-female relationships are still dead-on a century later. Men and women here do indeed inhabit different planets. To Higgins and Pickering, molding and shaping Eliza is a game, without any implications or consequences. But to Higgins’ housekeeper, his mother, the two men of science are destroying the future of their experiment’s subject by giving her the “manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living” without giving her a fine lady’s income. That Eliza manages to surprise them all in the end is a testament to the wit and resilience of a “guttersnipe.”

Every part in this production is played to the hilt. As Eliza before the transformation, Katie Ann McDermott is like a wild child raised by wolves, slobbering and dull-eyed. As her transformation progresses, her dark, crumpled-up, fidgety figure elongates into a pale, still column of breathtaking decorum. She becomes the ivory statue of the myth Shaw alludes to in the play’s name.

Henry Higgins, played by Hubbard Hall Artistic Director Kevin McGuire, is rude, selfish and completely obsessed with his profession and hobby, the science of speech. McGuire seems a bit old to be considered “eligible” (although a lot more youthful than Rex Harrison in the same role), but his flamboyance, charm and energy carry it off. He’s helped immensely by Richard Howe as Colonel Pickering, Higgins’ amiable and reserved sidekick and sounding board for theories and plans.

Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle (Jim Mohr) is a different type of man altogether. Undeserving poverty is his line, and that means that he’s “up agen” middle-class morality, the type of thinking that says a man like him shouldn’t get any handouts. But as he tries to explain, “I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more.” (Shaw was not a believer in apostrophes.) Mohr draws every ounce of feeling out of a character whose worst nightmare comes true when he’s turned into someone who has to live for others and not for himself.

Without a love story, per se, Pygmalion is also notable for female characters who stand on their own as human beings. The formidable housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce (Kim Johnson Turner), and Mrs. Higgins (D. Burgoyne O’Neill), each comfortable in her own station in life, are grounded and reliable, while genteel poverty has given Mrs. Eynsford Hill (Maria Rosenblum) and her snobbish daughter Clara (Anastasia Saterthwaite) a desperate air.

Hubbard Hall’s sets are always wonderful, and the Edwardian drawing rooms of Higgins and his mother are up to the mark. But I don’t totally agree with the note from the director in the program that My Fair Lady is “subversive.” Much of Shaw is preserved. Henry does tell Eliza “I have grown accustomed to your voice,” and I wouldn’t have been at all disappointed if Alfred had started singing “Get me to the church on time.” But no matter: Pygmalion is a triumph all on its own.

—Kathy Ceceri


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