American History why?

Or: Learning about pot-smoking, gas-passing presidents can be fun!

History has always been among my weaker subjects: I carry around gaps in my knowledge that you could drop a war or a social movement through. But it was nonetheless startling to learn that Article III of the original Constitution was a clause forbidding theater critics. Frank Rich of The New York Times might have wound up a pool cleaner in Newark if this had passed. Who knew the founding fathers were prescient enough to ban overpaid, underworked stage pundits? Or, for that matter, that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison were goofy stoners toking it up on Monticello Gold as they laid out the Bill of Rights?

Such are the revelations waiting for students in The Complete History of America (abridged), which enters the last month of a long run at Casa Manana's Theater on the Square. Director Joel Ferrell brought the script of Reduced Shakespeare Company's three-man assault on the history of the United States--dating all the way from the naming of the continent by Amerigo Vespucci to Monica Lewinsky's service on the presidential staff--to Fort Worth after it played seemingly every other city on the planet: New York, Boston, London, Dublin, Montreal, and, of course, Washington, D.C.

Those performances were part of a tour by the founding members of Reduced Shakespeare Company--Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor--who began writing and improving together back in the early '80s. The San Francisco-based performers are perhaps more famous for The Compleat William Shakespeare (abridged), a two-hour satirical jitterbug through the entire canon of Shakespeare's plays that has already been performed by several companies in the area. Instead of bringing Long, Reed, and Tichenor here for a handful of performances, Theater on the Square has enlisted a pool of six talented local actors to alternate evening performances of a multi-character show whose physicality and mnemonic demands are considerable.

Watching a Thursday-night performance of The Complete History of America (abridged) with a small but receptive audience, I was initially disappointed that only one member of the cast you see in this column's photograph took the stage (Chamblee Ferguson, in the center). Other projects have dispersed Jakie Cabe and Richard Frederick, whose comic work with Stage West and Theatre Three has charmed me before (yet both men are scheduled to return to the show before it closes). Ferguson remained for this production, and two other Equity actors, Jeff Wells and Michael Henry (who also serves as the show's stage manager), join him. Ferguson and Wells are Tasmanian devils, tornadoes of diverse accents and attitude, managing to be funny even when they flub the occasional line. Henry is less sure-footed during the show's first half, not terrible but not as forceful or expressive as Ferguson and Wells, but regains his balance for some very funny moments during the second act.

Scenic designer David Yates has created a marvelous human-scale diorama with Greek statuary on both ends; it leads into White House-type pillars trimmed on top in (of course) red, white, and blue, and in the background sits a giant copy of the Constitution. Against this backdrop enter Ferguson, Wells, and Henry playing an off-key, arrhythmic version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." What ensues is a loosely connected series of parodies, sketches, and burlesque comic episodes that wouldn't be nearly as funny without three men who perform with shameless (but disciplined) enthusiasm. That may sound like an obvious statement, but the Reduced Shakespeare guys have bequeathed to Casa's actors some pretty familiar material--fart jokes, TV-show parodies, flamboyant homosexual shtick, and a lampoon of politically correct "inclusive" phrasing in a new, inoffensive "America, the Beautiful." Their considerable talents remind us why we laughed at raging queens the first time around.

The playwrights' mission is spelled out from the very beginning, when one of the actors insists that "history is the study of emotionally potent oversimplifications," before our three historians launch into an anthem about the discovery of the New World set to the Gilligan's Island theme. From there, the show unwinds in chronological order, or whatever: George Washington puts out a call for his Minutemen ("As lovers," he insists, "they're not as bad as you might think") and winds up getting midgets because the townsfolk thought he was asking for Minutemen. The Civil War is staged as a slide show, except Michael Henry screws up the slide projector: The actors are forced to pose in ridiculously posed tableaux beneath a spotlight that turns on and off with a slide-show click.

From there, three soldiers escape World War I disguised as the Andrews Sisters, even though that musical group won't be popular until World War II ("The Germans don't know the difference"). Fast-forward through the 20th century: The 1950s are rendered as a Queen for a Day television game show, in which prizes are rewarded chronicling America's most important women--"all three of them." Vietnam becomes a Dr. Seussian acid trip, and the whole Cold War unfolds as a detective thriller that confuses Ethel Rosenberg with I Love Lucy's Ethel Mertz.

It's primarily the smart-ass charms of Ferguson, Wells, and Henry--as well as the relentless speed of the script, which doesn't allow the audience to linger over anything too long--that put over jokes this blessedly obvious. Perhaps this show's greatest asset is that it actually has the potential to offend the oversensitive lot with its jokes about Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's decline, and a mincing police chief who makes constant ass references. It's nice to see the wealth spread around; everybody gets it in the end.

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