The Complete History of America (Abridged)
Theatre in the Park
Through Sept. 9
A history lesson on a muggy late-summer afternoon may not seem all that appealing, but there are surprises in store at Raleigh's Pullen Park Theatre. The first clue comes from the pop-infused soundtrack playing in the background during audience seating: Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and Kim Wilde's "Kids in America" take the place of the amber waves of grain. This is MTV history or, better yet, a Comedy Central-like roast of our nation's past, present and future.
Penned in 1993 by the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, The Complete History of America (Abridged) is something of a warhorse, with numerous Triangle productions over the years. Still, the durable script crams America's historical timeline into a delightful series of vaudevillian one-liners, gender-bending sketches, word association games and brilliantly played homage to TV-land and pop culture.
In this new Theatre in the Park production, director David Henderson has created a tight ensemble; his cast of Eric Carl, Mike Raab and Adam Twiss never miss a step in their roles of three swarthy "professors." It should be noted that the actors take their fair share of embarrassments, getting wet, whacked and whittled throughout. Water, confetti and pasta are employed as projectiles, as well as that classic slapstick standby, a meringue pie right in the kisser.
The play is designed to remain topical, and here, jokes about Bush's unimpressive diction, Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and even Sen. Larry Craig's recent bathroom adventure live alongside sketches of the Civil War, the American Revolution and a Timothy Leary-inspired acid trip.
A few cuts on Anna Nicole Smith and Oprah Winfrey are thrown in the game as well. But perhaps the most startling and endearing element this production offers is its profound irreverence for our heritage and its ability to point out the foibles, mistakes and humanity of our leaders. The play is an equal-opportunity offender and stays clear of genuine subversiveness (for that—without the laughs—one might look for a staging of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States). Still, Complete History is a refreshing and uproarious corrective to the notion that history is a parade of dull dead men. —Kathy Justice
How I Got That Story
Deep Dish Theater
Through Sept. 15
Amlin Gray's How I Got That Story satirically depicts a country enveloped in the dissonant culture of war, told through the narration of a naïve reporter, played by Kit FitzSimons, who finds himself in "Amboland," the playwright's fictitious Vietnam stand-in. As the reporter's ongoing foil, Derrick Ivey's roles are subsumed under the rubric of the "Historical Event," meaning that Ivey adeptly portrays the 21 characters FitzSimons encounters while reporting from the war zone. This versatile collection of types is distinguished less by the costuming than the acuity of Gray's dialogue and Ivey's mastery of gesture, thus bringing to life characters that include an American G.I. and a weary nun, a dissident monk and a manhandled harlot.
A performance of the Historical Event is a daunting endeavor inherently worthy of a trip to the theater, especially considering several of the characters' potential for interpretation, such as Madame Ing, the iniquitous grand dame of Amboland who, in other productions, has been portrayed as psychotic instead of the comic figure offered by Ivey. FitzSimons, convincingly a reporter, is a steady foil for Ivey's colorful swirl of transformation, particularly skillful at seamlessly inserting humor in the nightmare of his reporting experience while maintaining his character's adolescence.
The only noticeable shortfall in the Paul Frellick-directed production of the Obie award-winning play is its lack of commitment to dealing with the drugged hypnosis that can envelop a country at war and ensure its downfall—a dark and deep pool of destruction into which this show only dips its toes. Otherwise, Deep Dish proffers audiences talent in a hip production, cleverly covering the magnitude of war's repercussions with a relevant urgency in the context of our current situation in Iraq. —Megan Stein