Home of the Depraved
As the majestic strains of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" play in the background prior to the start of The Complete History of America (Abridged), you can hear some devilish laughter as the audience anticipates a sharply satirical take on our nation's checkered past. But when three grinning buffoons clad in logo-filled T-shirts enter and convey their utter contempt for the likes of furry animals, Nike and the hearing-impaired, you immediately tune in to a more freewheeling, postmodern version of American destiny--filled with achingly bad puns, politically incorrect ethnic slurs and adolescent sexual humor--that one actor describes as a giant "Post-It note on the refrigerator of America."
Make that a hastily composed and predictably juvenile piece of kitchen art that, as deftly performed by Eric Hansen, C.J. Hosier and Brian Upton, somehow manages to be shamelessly provocative and moderately amusing. Now being presented by the Theatre Group at the Phoenix Theatre, the two-hour show was scrawled by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, the same madcap trio whose parody of Shakespeare's complete works is tighter and sharper than this apparently hallucinogen-inspired exercise.
In fact, the show sometimes resembles a late-night bongfest in which the revelers attempt to construct an entire comedy routine out of a few ten-second gags, beginning with a spoof of Amerigo Vespucci, a blustering drunk who sets sail to the theme from Gilligan's Island and sprays a mouthful of water at the audience whenever he's upset. (Tip #1: Bring along some rain gear and a cheery disposition if you decide to sit in the front row.) Touching on the familiar exploits of the country's founding fathers, the three performers don wigs and toke on some Monticello Gold as they muse about what it would have been like if Jefferson and Madison had come up with a Bill of Wrongs. They earn guffaws by pointing out that "flatulence in elevators" and chronically raised toilet seats would likely have made the list. But after one actor tells us that he yearns to be a black pregnant woman crying for R-E-S-P-E-C-T and another makes a leering comment about sticking his finger in a dike, you'll agree with several audience members who briefly applauded when the third cast member remarked, "I think you owe these people their money back." It's not that we're unaware of contemporary Americans' hypersensitivity to the latest social issue or concern, it's just that neither bit seems particularly funny in the context of a show that purports to skewer long-standing American myths. (Tip #2: The first act, which features a few anagram jokes about political types, contains the stronger material. Did you know that, scrambled, the letters in former vice president Spiro Agnew's name spell "Grow a Penis"?)
The occasional groaner notwithstanding, the affable performers sustain our interest with an Oliver Stone-style reenactment of the Revolutionary War clashes at Lexington and Concord, wryly observing that "we rebelled against taxation so that we could impose...unfair taxes." A short-lived episode in which the boys try to get the national anthem changed from the unsingable "Star-Spangled Banner" to the more accessible "Free Bird" elicits giggles, as does a Nancy and Ronald Reagan puppet show and a scene about three World War I doughboys armed with a View-Master, their own conflicted sexual identities and some heavy-duty Super Soakers. (See Tip #1 above, which applies to pretty much everyone this time around.) When our intrepid chuckleheads open up the floor to questions from the audience and later embark on a ponderous film-noir-type journey through the Watergate years, though, it's clear that most of the comic wind has gone out of the show's now-threadbare sails. (Tip #3: It's always a dicey situation to place actors at the mercy of theatergoers eager to match wits about such topics as the space program, Vietnam and Monica Lewinsky.)
However, a few serious, reflective moments in director Steven Tangedal's show resonate in unexpected ways. In one scene, for instance, Tangedal artfully juxtaposes Sixties music and sound effects with dialogue that's reflective of a few of that period's more turbulent happenings. Which is yet another indication that, no matter how easy it is to ridicule certain parts of American life, the significant portions of our history demand more thoughtful and imaginative treatment.
The Complete History of America (Abridged), presented by the Theatre Group for an open-ended run at the Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 303-860-9360.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.