by Michael Bowen
I learned the other night that the Watergate break-in, the end of the Cold War, the Enron scandal and the whacking of Nancy Kerrigan's knee are all linked. For there are evil forces at work, my friends, powers beyond our imagining... I know this to be true, because I read it. Says so, right here in this script.
The Complete History of America (abridged) is the second of five satires written by the actor guys at the Reduced Shakespeare Company. They got their start by condensing all of Shakespeare's plays into The Compleat Wks of Wm Shakspr (abrgd), the consensus about which was expressed in one review's headline: "Absly Hlrs!"
And so it is with the current Interplayers' production of the America play, written by the trio of Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, and directed here by Holli Hornlien. A preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that this show is hilarious, absolutely: the absurdity (Betsy Ross's sister is Diana), the sudden juxtapositions (the Shot Heard 'Round the World was fired from the Fourth Floor window of the Lexington and Concord Scroll Depository), the mental gymnastics (Spiro Agnew's name is twisted into an off-color anagram). Standing alongside Over the River and Through the Woods of two years ago and three Alan Ayckbourn comedies in the years before that, this version of the America play is among the best comedies Interplayers has produced in the last 10 years.
Starting with Amerigo Vespucci (who's observed bickering with his wife), lurching back to the Ice Age, leaping into the major wars in our history but taking time along the way to peek at Dolly Madison and Humphrey Bogart, America is thorough yet partial. Polonius, the lord chamberlain from Hamlet, categorizes the RSC style best: "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral." This isn't American History for Dummies like Polonius, however; it's American History Against Dummies, aimed at Dummies, skewering all known fools with satiric barbs and roasting them on the barbecue of skepticism.
No one's political favorites are safe. Long, Martin and Tichenor level their aim at both Roosevelt and Reagan, both Indian fighters and the Indians themselves, demonstrators for and against the Vietnam War, fans and detractors of Anne Murray's "Snowbird." If your political views are rabid, you'll be frothing at the mouth regularly. Political moderates will have the most fun, because the script lampoons everybody else, not them -- not, that is, unless they're stupid political moderates.
Because if you don't know who Rosa Parks is, never heard of the Lend-Lease Act, think that other nations may be capable of greed and corruption and cruelty but never our country, not the good ol' USA, then in between the belly-laughs, this play will have you shifting uncomfortably in your seat.
This trio of playwrights pounce on any sign of stupidity by Americans or their leaders. But they also spoof themselves. For example, early in the evening, "Tim" cites the adage, "History is written by the winners" -- then pumps his fist and proclaims, "Well, tonight it's our turn."
Repeatedly, the humor catches us off-guard. We smile, we giggle, we laugh out loud, we notice that the people around us are doubled over and wiping tears away from their eyes. And then the writers insert something that's not so funny -- really, we shouldn't be laughing about that at all -- and then we titter at our own naughtiness, and then we start laughing because we're laughing. And then we stop laughing altogether, because the script has sneaked in references to child labor, political torture, senseless massacres, Oprah's weight problem and the tragic banality of Anne Murray songs.
All three actors -- they introduce themselves by their real-life names -- slip in and out of multiple roles. Craig Dingle, for example, plays Mrs. Amerigo Vespucci, a wise elder of the Crow Indians, a Pilgrim rap artist, Molly the cowgirl, Eva Braun, Uncle Sam and Lucille Ball. Dingle plays dumb, he plays effeminate, he even plays that funky music, white boy, and plays it well.
In a very proppy play, it should be noted, Kimberly Crawley deserves credit for designing goofy furnishings and doodads for all the multiple roles.
Michael Weaver, consistently fine, is probably best here as an academic interpreting the symbolism of the very word "America," as a befuddled Betsy Ross, and as a hapless World War I sergeant.
Tim Kniffin, as usual, delivers the evening's most carefully observed performance. From cheesey Italian to creepy Nixonian, he delivers detailed impersonations. He bleats out a polysyllabic confession of white man's guilt, then, like a cheap lounge lizard, belts out a politically correct version of "America the Beautiful," unwilling to offend but gloating nonetheless.
Holli Hornlien's direction keeps the energy up even as the comedians shift styles from vaudeville to sketch comedy, from film noir spoof to screwball comedy, from pseudo-intellectual monologues to Stooge-y slapstick. She expertly choreographs a sequence involving two guys riding a motorcycle across the Atlantic Ocean (don't ask). Best of all, she finds a way of bringing to life the script's tricky ending: a replay of American history done backwards that starts out comic and ends up wistful. All of us need to be knocked off our pedestals, because all of us have contributed to the whirlpool that's going down the drain of American history.
Good satire gets us thinking objectively about our political leaders and ideals. The America play doesn't want us sympathizing with historical figures; it wants us to judge and evaluate their successes and mistakes -- along with our own. That's why the history lesson that is America ought to be studied in the complete text, not a condensed version.