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About three minutes into The Complete History of America (Abridged), you’ll realize how much you’ve missed the Reduced Shakespeare Company. In the months since this self-styled “other RSC” took its hysterical history tour on the road last August, political jokes have gotten harder to laugh at—hell, they’ve mostly gotten elected—and the only haymakers floating around today are recycled one-liners about Newts and other reptiles. Though it wasn’t clear last summer, the three irreverent wits who dubbed the father of our country “old mahogany-mouth” ended up skipping town just when they were most needed to build bridges over troubled Whitewaters.
Well, now “they’re baaaaaack,” as that tyke in Poltergeist was wont to say. And they’re every bit as giggle-provoking as they were when last seen at the Terrace Theater. Apart from minor alterations—a couple of O.J. references and one groan-inducing Reagan/Alzheimer’s joke—TCHoA(A) is precisely what it was before: a giddily sophomoric (and at its best moments, surprisingly pointed) satiric spoof of 12,000 years of American history. The first act takes patrons from 10,000 B.C. through the Civil War; the second, from World War I to the present. The intervening half-century, note the lads, “just wasn’t funny.”
Along the way, they recreate authentic Native American tribal rituals (complete with balloon animals), enact Continental Congress scenes that would do the Three Stooges proud, fight WWI battles with squirt-guns (front-row patrons should bring umbrellas, as the RSC takes no prisoners), and deconstruct the very notion of conspiracy theories. This last bit—in which a colonist’s “shot heard ’round the world” is still wounding presidents, preachers, and TV icons some two centuries later—plays with more bite today than it did 10 months ago, what with all the headlines about paranoid militiamen training in the hinterlands. But then, so do similarly unaltered sketches about Cuba, Congress, and even Thomas Jefferson. The only sequence that can be said to play precisely as it did last summer is a Manifest Destiny routine in which the Louisiana Purchase is burlesqued (literally) by the vaudeville team of Lewis & Clark. With punch lines that are deliberately hoarier-than-thou—“the best jokes of 1810,” claims someone or other—the appeal of the segment always had as much to do with form as content.
The second half of the evening—originally dark—has turned darker without any noticeable changes in the script. There seems a sharper edge now to the notion of depicting the Cold War through film-noir conventions and having Lucy Ricardo turn in Fred and Ethel Rosenberg to the feds. Audiences may not quite hear Gingri(n)chian echoes when private eye Sam (brother of Hope) Diamond spouts Dr. Seuss rhymes (“I do not like your Vietnam; I do not like it, Sam-I-Am”), but there’s definitely a taste of acid to the sketch’s humor these days.
That’s also true of the curtain call, in which chronology reverses to provide the kind of happy ending that real life doesn’t seem to be providing for the nation. The device was also used last summer, but it didn’t register quite so clearly as a taking of right-wing, turn-back-the-clock dreams to their logical extreme before Republicans took control of Congress. Conjuring images of businessmen flying to the tops of skyscrapers during depressions and explorers whizzing back to other continents leaving tons of gold with Mayan and Incan populations, the RSC attains satirical heights for which most comedians wouldn’t think to reach.
It’s worth noting that “Reduced Shakespeare Company” has become something of a misnomer since the troupe was last here. This performance company, oddly enough, no longer has the right to shred the work of its namesake. RSC founders Jess Borgenson, Adam Long, and Daniel Singer, who developed a blissfully idiotic revue called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) some 14 years ago, sold their original material in 1994 to a producer intent on turning it into the sort of franchise that Shear Madness and Tony & Tina’s Wedding have become. What this means, alas, is that winsome Matthew Croke can no longer die a-vomiting as Juliet or Lady Macbeth; follicle-challenged Reed Martin has given up the delicate Elizabethan art of tonsil-flicking; and vaguely professorial Austin Tichenor waxes erudite about Titus Androgynous no more.
But that’s freed them to devote all their time to condensing America’s patriotic myths. And to start work on a show with a title calculated to inspire the indignation of Newt’s minions: The Complete Word of God (Abridged). That one will open here in July, having survived workshops in such out-of-the-way spots as Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Homer, Alaska (where entertainment-starved denizens will reportedly laugh at anything), as well as in Cambridge, Mass. (where Puritans have a rep for never so much as cracking a smile). My spies say the KenCen has so far asked for just one cut: a song parody called “Just My Crucifixion.” Too bad. Sounds catchy.