- Courtesy Of Danielle Wirsansky
- From left: G. Richard Ames, Liz Davis and Dan Renkin
Like just about every joke in the show, the title tries to have it both ways. The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged) lets itself off the completeness hook by mocking the very idea of a definitive summary of comedy, yet dangling the promise that it will come close. The humor is usually a similar one-two punch: the gag and a higher-level wink about the gag. In the Lost Nation Theater production, three cheerful, fast-moving actors will do anything for laughs, while the audience can contemplate what makes something funny.
The playwrights, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, have been offering up rapid-fire, small-ensemble comedy since their work in the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Leaning on oddball props, silly wigs and scenes so fast the audience barely has time to groan, Martin and Tichenor have collaborated on "complete" abridgments of the Bible, American history and the Great Books. The 1987 Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), written by other members of the troupe, launched this mashup genre.
Because The Complete History of Comedy consists of short sketches and even shorter bits, viewers can treat the show like the weather: If it's not funny now, wait a minute. The frame holding it all together is the discovery of a lost, ancient manuscript called "The Art of Comedy" written by one Ah Tsu (gesundheit), fictional brother of the famous Chinese strategist Sun Tsu, author of The Art of War. Three comedy aficionados are performing it for us, but they know there's trouble ahead. The last chapter is missing, and they have no idea how the play will end.
But they know all there is to know about spit takes, getting clobbered and dashing about backstage to make the next entrance on cue. G. Richard Ames, Liz Davis and Dan Renkin play these three rubber-limbed, high-energy worthies, and the characters go by the actors' real-life first names.
Though the show gives glancing attention to more cerebral forms of humor, the meat of the matter is physical comedy — humor that depends on humiliation. Here, the emphasis isn't on cruelty, as the bits are introduced like archaeological finds. The audience can choose between laughter and quasi-scientific curiosity. How funny is slipping on a banana peel? And does it get funnier if it's a running gag?
The jokes, alas, are often weak and require the professor-reading-from-a-textbook conceit to excuse their inherent awfulness. The bravado energy of the performers is the production's saving grace. Renkin spends a lot of time on the floor, dispatched there by first-, second- and third-degree mayhem. Ames, with offhand balletic powers, manages not to drop a cream pie no matter how many times he intersects the other players. And Davis tucks a Charlie Chaplin-esque cane under her arm; every time she moves, the cane pokes a cop in the crotch.
The script defends lowly fart jokes and doesn't look down on anything that might provoke a titter from an 8-year-old. The performers showcase a host of comic tropes, from rubber chickens to commedia dell'arte, churning through them at breakneck speed.
This checklist structure demands that the actors stay self-conscious, always addressing the audience. It's impossible to miss the fact that they're working hard, and when comedy looks like effort, it's tough for the audience to lose itself.
At the preview performance, the highlight was bringing the audience into the show, injecting a welcome dose of chaos. A demonstration of improv pulled two viewers onstage, and they kept the performers so much on their toes that we all reveled in silly suspense.
But the humor is often low, and groans were as frequent as guffaws in last Thursday's performance. This comedy catalog is overloaded with puns, one-liners, insults and slapstick and entirely devoid of comic characters and situations. It's limited to punch lines, not the relationships that build into great comic peaks based on who people are, not just what they'll do.
The set evokes a circus tent, with entrances through flapping canvas. A big, rounded red dot on the center wall is superbly lit to glow like a massive embodiment of the classic clown nose, and serves as an all-purpose hatchway for props. Scenic designer Donna Stafford uses the primary colors red, yellow and blue for three-ring circles on the floor, and costume designer Cora Fauser assigns each character a pair of sneakers in one of those colors. All three performers wear fake tuxedo T-shirts with black pants, and the cartoonish attire matches the tone of the show.
The audience members take their seats to an annoying circus calliope tune, and music and sound effects are used throughout to punctuate gags. Sound designer Jacob Graham brings us such treasures as the theme song from "The Flintstones" and crowns most jokes with a noise. Samuel J. Biondolillo provides playful lighting design and, as of preview night, projections in disappointingly fuzzy focus on the tent cloth.
To stage a show with so much movement, director Kathleen Keenan brought in experts. Rob Mermin, who trained with Marcel Marceau, consulted on mime and clown movement. Taryn Noelle helped with dance and choreography. Renkin, a stage combat specialist, designed the endless blows and pratfalls, many of which claim him as victim.
Comedy in its broadest sense is a universal good, though humor is a matter of taste. The Complete History of Comedy lingers at the Three Stooges level, and those attuned to that frequency will enjoy the show. The rat-a-tat-tat pace is a kind of silliness in itself, and some physical stunts are worthy of the viewer's double take. But with a pace designed to keep heads spinning, the show often manages mere shout-outs to great moments in comic history. Naming them isn't the same as revitalizing them, or the laughs they once triggered.