The Complete History of America (Abridged)

Noble Fool Theater Company

Some think you can tell a country’s strength by how many bombs or fighter jets it has or how many durable goods it produces. But after spending three weeks in Ukraine, I believe that the true measure of a country’s power is how willing it is to make fun of itself.

No one I met dared joke about the current government, even though the citizens are dealing with a worthless currency, tangled and corrupt bureaucracies, air and water pollution, a high unemployment rate, a decaying infrastructure, and an educational system equipped only to prepare students for life in 1960. My jokes about the many statues of Lenin still remaining or the fact that the hot water had been turned off “for routine repairs” throughout Kharkov for the entire month of June were met with grim stares. Even my gibes at America–about Enron, about our frat-boy president, about the many odd people in his cabinet–only upset them. Did I hate my homeland?

On the flight back I realized how rude I’d been, that my jokes about American foibles were really boasts about how strong we are. And watching The Complete History of America (Abridged), I realized that a smart, lively, no-holds-barred sketch-comedy show of this sort could only be performed in a free society.

Written by three members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company–Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor–the script offers a much more biting view of American history than I’d expected from the troupe that made its name by cramming all of Shakespeare’s works into a pretty silly two-hour show, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). It’s clear that the writers know their Shakespeare backward and forward, but that piece was written by class clowns for the rest of the class.

The Complete History of America (Abridged) was penned in 1993, six years after the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s big hit, while Long, Martin, and Tichenor were performing it in a West End production (Tichenor claims the project alleviated their homesickness). Awful wigs and spit takes are part of the history show, but it also features the kind of critical comments about American ways and American hypocrisy you’d expect from the Onion or Comedy Central’s Daily Show. In one of the script’s more sobering asides, the three folks onstage “joke” that we committed many of the same sins in the 19th century against Native Americans that the Nazis did in the 20th against Jews: nationalistic expansion at any cost, genocide, disguising low motives as high ideals. In another sketch the writers note Christopher Columbus’s cruelty to the peaceful Indians he “discovered”: when they refused to be enslaved, he cut off their hands and left them to die.

As Howard Zinn might say in A People’s History of the United States, which exhaustively recounts unfamiliar historical events, funny how we didn’t learn that in school. In fact, Zinn’s book is clearly one of the show’s sources. Yet Long, Martin, and Tichenor–all University of California graduates, and all familiar with the ideas that float around the People’s Republic of Berkeley–also make fun of Zinn-style politically correct versions of American history.

Much as I like comedy that gores sacred cows, The Complete History of America (Abridged) would be tiresome if that were its only fare. Instead Long, Martin, and Tichenor weave together kooky and satirical comedy styles. One minute they use a vaudeville baggy-pants routine to illustrate the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the next they’re singing a self-absorbed parody of “America the Beautiful” that tosses off the sort of wry verbal humor you seldom hear anymore (“God shed His grace on me”). Then a new version of the Gilligan’s Island theme pokes fun at 16th-century sea voyagers. This mix of styles–high- and lowbrow, musical parody, poetry, comic lecture, and standup–means that you never know what’s coming next, a crucial component in good comedy.

Whether they know it or not, Long, Martin, and Tichenor owe a debt to Stan Freberg, the king of this style of witty, multilayered comedy in the late 50s and early 60s. His 1962 album, Stan Freberg Presents the United States

of America, contains parodies of American history that weren’t cliched then and aren’t now. The material in The Complete History of America (Abridged) is funnier than Freberg’s, however, perhaps in part because we can be more frank today.

The Noble Fool Theater Company’s self-assured production contrasts sharply with the sometimes desperate stagings I’ve seen of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). This midwest premiere stars three locals–Dominic Conti, Tim Decker, and Tim Schueneman–all seasoned enough to take the play’s many styles in stride. Conti, for example, earned big laughs several years ago in Raven Theatre’s production of Baby With the Bathwater but was equally good as one of the football hooligans in Next Theatre Company’s Among the Thugs. He’s the lowest-status clown while Decker and Schueneman, who have similarly diverse backgrounds, play respectively the “reasonable” man and his smart but goofy sidekick.

Director John Gawlik is also at home with both serious and comic works. A longtime cast member of Noble Fool’s Flanagan’s Wake and The Baritones, he turned in a terrific performance at Northlight Theatre as a menacing but somewhat thick cop in A Skull at Connemara. In this staging, Gawlik knows exactly how to balance the script’s varied approaches to comedy: the slapstick never comes across as shtick or the serious material as mere hectoring.

Most impressive, the three ensemble members work together so well you’d never know they didn’t write the material themselves. Again and again they had me laughing out loud, glad to be back home.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Collett Powell.