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Open Door Theatre Review: The Complete History of America (Abridged) Is a Hit-or-Miss Affair

July 17, 2003 - Chapel Hill, NC:


The Reduced Shakespeare Company (Adam Long, Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor et al.) represents the triumph of an oxymoron: smart, sophomore humora sort of theatrical return to the heady days of The National Lampoon, The Firesign Theatre, and the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players. Having tackled Shakespeare on the three-yard line of burlesque, the presiding wits of the RSC (note the ironic nomenclature, a jokey appropriation of initials belonging to Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company) turned their attention to American history, which may never recover from the assault.

The Complete History of America (Abridged) is, like its predecessor, a sort of Hellzapoppin' for the ironic age. No mark is too small for the RSC's bunker-busters, no cow too sacred to slaughter on the altar of parody. This scattershot approach ensures that, while many of the jokes ping harmlessly off their intended targets, a fair number will draw blood, wresting attention away from the duds.

Thus, we get: a slew of puns; historical anagrams (including Dick Cavett's old observation that the letters in "Spiro Agnew" couldnay shouldbe rearranged as "Grow a penis"); wiener dog art; manic raps on the Jamestown settlement; a diagram of "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" that would do pride to Oliver Stone; George Washington addressing his troops in highly lubricious Pentagon-speak; Madison and Jefferson crafting the Constitution in the manner of 1970s stoners; Lewis and Clark as a vaudeville duo which must have answered a call for Smith and Dale by mistake; the Gallagheresque use of Super Soakers as ammunition; Eva Braun in Tyrolean braids and sporting a massive set of Wagnerian rockets for a bosom; quotations from Duck Soup; Uncle Sam by way of Dr. Seuss; a "Queen for a Day" parody; and a pocket history of the past 50 years crammed into a film noir send-up of 20 minutes that feels more like 120.

The Open Door Theatre's current, traveling production of this satirical grab bag is, like the show itself, a hit-or-miss affair. Moments of bizarre comedic grandeur vie with long stretches of ennui, to use a term from the nation at whose every mention Open Door's pranksters ostentatiously spit.

The company's dramaturg, Anthony Fichera, has directed the show at a pace break-neck enough to glide over most of what doesn't work. The show's trio of clowns, meanwhile, is as variable as the material itself. Will Stimpson seemed under-prepared during the opening weekend on The Streets at Southpoint mall, too often stumbling over the punch lines of his own jokes. Company member Benjamin Beecher uses his eyes and mouth in unsettling ways, both in promise of laughter to come and, simultaneously, as a threat to the unwary. His demented Adolph Hitler is far funnier than anything in Charles Chaplin's labored spoof of Der Führer.

But it is Kit FitzSimmons who most fully represents the RSC's irreducible mix of inspiration and perspiration. This almost absurdly slender young actor/comedian pours himself into the material as though he believes every nonsensical word of it. More, he performs as though every element was of the same quality. Manic one moment, compellingly silent the next, FitzSimmons gives the production a longed-for series of exquisitely placed respites. He opens wide eyes, gives looks of barely controlled outrage that would swell the heart of Daffy Duck, shoots glances that convey a resigned sense that he's smarter than anyone else onstage, and performs leisurely (but perfectly timed) little moues of pique.

Caveat emptor: The Complete History of America (Abridged) is being presented in a series of open-air venues. Cushions are de rigueur. Ninety minutes, as Noel Coward once observed, is a long, long time.

The Open Door Theatre presents The Complete History of America (Abridged) Friday-Saturday, July 18-19, at 8:30 p.m. at the Skylight Exchange, 405-1/2 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill, NC; Friday-Saturday, July 25-26, at Joe and Jo's Downtown, 417 W. Main St., Durham; Friday-Saturday, Aug. 1 and 2, at 6 p.m. on the Weaver Street Market lawn (Carrboro location) and Sunday, Aug. 3, at 6 p.m. on the Weaver Street Market lawn (Southern Village location); and Friday-Sunday, August 8-10, at 6 p.m. in the amphitheatre atop Rosemary Street Parking Deck (at Henderson St.) in Chapel Hill. Free ($5 suggested donation). 919/923-2068. http://www.theopendoor.net/ [inactive 8/03] or http://www.reducedshakespeare.com/america.html.