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[whitespace] 'The Complete History of America (abridged)'
Photograph by James Hilmer

Conspiracy Comics: Brian Ruf (left), Derek McCaw (center) and Ed Meehan deconstruct everything you know about American history.

History Lark

'The Complete History of America (abridged)' offers corniness with a conscience

By Heather Zimmerman

WHO SAYS Americans don't have a sense of history? In their comedy The Complete History of America (abridged), Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor trot out some of the oldest jokes in the book to celebrate the history and culture of a nation, which, it's often joked, doesn't have very much history and even less culture. City Lights Theater Company presents this very silly show, which somehow proves that old jibe wrong--kind of.

The buoyant comedy has a natural, impromptu quality that resembles comic improv, with the ensemble cast of Derek McCaw, Ed Meehan and Brian Ruf tackling every role from Amerigo Vespucci to the Andrews Sisters. From the beginning, the play takes the stereotype of the historically ignorant American and runs with it, contending that the Revolutionary War got started by a game of telephone, that Thomas Jefferson's homegrown wacky tabacky influenced the Declaration of Independence, that Ronald Reagan was a robot controlled by Nancy. (Actually, that last one might not be too far-fetched, but of course the playwrights' joke is that no matter what they said, we probably wouldn't have known better.)

It's all done in good fun, and some sketches are truly inspired: in particular, Lewis and Clark as a vaudeville duo a la Martin and Lewis, a muffed Civil War slide show and a film noir-styled conspiracy that wraps up the last 50 years. McCaw, Meehan and Ruf prove a very versatile comic trio: it takes some capable comedians to make some of the script's recycled groaners actually funny again--and they do.

Director Tom Gough generally uses a light hand, hard to do when the tone is deliberately cornball. The show loses its momentum from time to time with sketches that go on too long, and it can meander between sketches, when the three actors prank each other mercilessly and trade philosophies on history and the United States. However, one of the most compelling sketches is one of the longest, an audience-participation-fueled re-enactment of the '50s game show Queen for a Day, which humorously spotlights our general ignorance of the contributions and achievements of women in American history.

Although it would have been the obvious choice to present a collection of goofy historical vignettes played strictly for laughs, ultimately The Complete History of America (abridged) demonstrates a more thoughtful tone underneath the silliness. Our national identity grapples with inner turmoil concerning some of the less auspicious events in our history, and the best thing about the show is that it doesn't circumvent that conflict but highlights it as an important part of our schizophrenic (in a good way) collective psyche. In fact, the very struggle to define our national identity gets a good going over, too. The self-awareness underlying all the jokes carries something of a suggestion that such an irreverent sensibility is our culture, or at least at the core of it, and something to be a bit proud of--we can question ourselves and we can laugh at ourselves. (Of course, whatever this play says about Americans, nobody ever does say that we know our history.)

The Complete History of America (ABRIDGED) plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm through July 20 at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$20. (408.295. 4200)

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From the July 11-17, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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