If you need an evening of laughter, you want to be in a seat at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company for The Complete History of America (abridged). In fact, if you want to go, you apparently need to get your tickets right away. On opening night, CSC’s Producing Artistic Director Brian Phillips announced that in the company’s 21-year history only three shows have achieved their individual ticket sales goal before opening: Pride and Prejudice (2011), To Kill a Mockingbird (2012) and (drumroll, please) … The Complete History of American (abridged). It was clear that Phillips was bemused by this. I am, too.
If the title sounds familiar, that’s because it’s another of the works generated by the Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC), whose stock-in-trade has been shows poking fun at various topics. CSC has staged RSC’s best-known work, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), numerous times and sold lots of tickets. That certainly was part of the decision to stage this one, even if it’s not quite up to that comic standard.
RSC has been cranking out these “abridgements” since 1987. Several of their scripts found early success at the Cincinnati Playhouse. Their most recent, The Complete History of Comedy (abridged), was presented in Eden Park during the 2013 holiday season.
Their formula is tried and true: Three actors with seemingly no clue about the subject at hand give audiences a whirlwind overview. The jokesters behind RSC — Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor — have cranked out nine such shows. Other topics skewered include “all the great books,” Hollywood, Christmas, sports and even the Bible. If you’ve seen one of them, you know what’s coming — puns, innuendo, cross dressing and quick costume changes, lighthearted fun with audience members, plenty of spit takes and water pitches and mile-a-minute verbal silliness.
RSC scripts are flexibly scripted offering the comic framework, but inviting the director (CSC veteran Jeremy Dubin has staged this one) and actors to freely adapt the material, incorporating local references and using personal details about the cast to ramp up the humor. CSC’s production includes its two best comics, Miranda McGee and Justin McCombs, with the addition of newcomer Geoffrey Barnes, who keeps up admirably with the veterans. Together they’re often on the brink of breaking one another up.
They work on a flexible set (designed by Will O’Donnell), festooned with Americana: An honorific star, the nation’s seal (with a cartoonish eagle), a Route 66 road sign and a Captain America shield. Upstage center is a Revolutionary War flag with 13 stars. The walls have an erratic timeline of peaks and valleys from 1492 to 2015, marking the ups and downs of American history. In fact, the show jumps back thousands of years earlier to describe the “first people” coming to North America before Columbus. Moments and actions that don’t wash so well today — slavery and political chicanery, for instance — are certainly mocked.
But the handling of some historical touch points sometimes went off course. The thread of violence in the American character is reflected, including the references to several presidential assassinations. But the tonality goes awry with a cartoonish bullet that travels a circuitous path through history. The show ends with an overlong, noir-film-styled reconstruction of political events across the past half-century through a filter of conspiracy theories. It has plenty of funny bits (McCombs as Lucille Ball and several femme fatales) to keep audiences laughing, but what might have been amusing and pertinent in 1992 when this material was written doesn’t really connect today. Nixon and Reagan impersonations, for instance, feel clichéd and labored after 30 or 40 years.
McGee, Barnes and McCombs sustain the humor, always working hard to keep audiences laughing. The production uses McGee’s Australian roots as motive for action — since she’s supposedly seeking a green card by learning more about American history — even if the lessons are lightweight and seldom accurate. There are lots of pokes at contemporary events and characters: Donald Trump is the butt of several good lines, and the audience is polled about which historic woman should be portrayed on the new $10 bill. Local bits about City Hall, the streetcar and more fly by. Barnes does an amusing Barack Obama impersonation that fits right into the tomfoolery.
Nevertheless, too much material felt forced or predictable for me to recommend this as an evening of fine comedy. But Dubin’s quick-witted direction and the actors’ unflagging and inventive energy is more than enough to keep you entertained for the better part of two hours.
THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF AMERICA (ABRIDGED), presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company continues through Aug. 15.