Seven Days, October 6, 2004
History Lessons
By Kristen Eaton

It's said that history has been written by the winners. Often, "winners" has meant "white men." But in the last few decades, feminists and other progressive thinkers have taken to revising history. Then along came the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor to prove that white men really can experience historical enlightenment. But maybe their scripts aren't so much enlightened as they are just plain funny. In any case, VSC's current production of The Complete History of America (Abridged) is a wild and wacky parody of our nation's past.

The play is more variety show than traditional theater. The members of the cast introduce themselves as Corey Patrick, John Patrick (no relation) and Alex Smith, which happen to be their real names. They then proceed to "start at the beginning" in the map shop of Amerigo Vespucci, the man who can claim one country and two continents as namesakes. John, in an oversized floppy hat, portrays Amerigo, while Alex, in a huge wig and impressively fake cleavage, plays the nagging Mrs. Vespucci. The trio progresses from this -- after a brief regression to the native inhabitants of "America" -- to the present-day U.S.A. in irreverent skits, songs and comedy routines. While Complete History was produced originally in 1996, this is a fully updated version, with plenty of references to recent history.

There are also plenty of visual aids, including a mapped trajectory of the bullet better known as "the shot heard round the world" (it "made an illegal U-turn and took a right on Main Street," etc.). The basic costume for all three cast members is a suit and tie that gets layered with an array of accessories, including military uniforms, dresses, various types of facial hair and more cheesy wigs. Props abound as well; perhaps the most memorable are the super-soakers apparently used by soldiers in World War I.

The water guns are used to dampen, though not actually soak, the audience; this is just one part of the show's non-threatening audience participation. At specific points, viewers are invited to ask questions or volunteer answers, but no one is put on the spot. Latecomers are heckled by Amerigo, but in a feel-good way that ends with Corey, John and Alex shaking hands with the tardy arrivals. Most of the audience participation comes in the form of laughter.

The show is performed "in the round," a challenge these actors and director Stephen Golux obviously know how to deal with. John Devlin's set is a square of red and white stripes around a star-spangled central platform. The audience sits on all four sides of the square. For the whole audience to have a good view, the actors have to "play the diagonals" -- in other words, they have to stand in a corner of the square and address the opposite corner. That way, all audience members have a good view; they either see the actor face-on or in profile. This group plays the diagonals -- often with the aid of two-sided flip charts -- as if it were second nature.

Alternately, actors can stand in the middle of the stage and turn around a lot. It's boring if an actor shilly-shallies about which way to face. But if his movements are crisp -- in essence, if he does multiple takes -- each to a different side of the audience, it's funny. Golux and his cast understand this, too. And Devlin has helped them out by providing another option: The pedestal can spin. It's surprising how amusing a rotating performer can be.

This show contains humor in a variety of flavors. It's an incredibly physical production with lots of unabashed slapstick, right down to the classic cream pie in the face. There are oodles of bad puns and wordplays: "We can escape in disguise." "They'll shoot us down like pigeons." "Not in the skies, in disguise!"

Anachronisms also run wild, such as when Betsy Ross reveals she wanted a flag design that looks more like way-before-its-time abstract art than stars and stripes. There are superbly bad accents, and a good deal of wit. When the audience votes in favor of John's Broadway-musical-style ending instead of Corey's and Alex's "thoughtful" film-noir finale, Corey declares, "You won the popular vote -- but we won the electoral college!" And because humor is disarming, there are even moments where the audience is caught off guard by a poignant or pointed observation.

Whether delivering slapstick or satire, this trio proves that history is anything but dull, and that even those bad jokes you can't believe you're laughing at can teach you a thing or two.