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Preview: The Complete History of America (abridged)

Will Coviello on JPAS’ history of the United States — just in time for July Fourth



Nobody puts baby in a corner!"

  That's not actually in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, but polls suggest that many Americans are not terribly certain what is included in the list. A 2010 Vanderbilt University study showed only 60 percent of those surveyed knew the First Amendment protects free speech. Less than a quarter knew it protected freedom of religion, and one in 20 knew it guarantees citizens the right to petition the federal government.

  In The Complete History of America (abridged), it's not entirely clear that Patrick Swayze's line from Dirty Dancing couldn't be in the Bill of Rights. The condensed history of the United States stretches from the prehistory of North America and the arrival of early man across the Bering Strait to Miley Cyrus and twerking. At times it mashes up entertainment and history in a way that suggests Betsy Ross and Diana Ross aren't totally unrelated.

  Just in time for the Fourth of July, Jefferson Performing Arts Society presents the show at Westwego Performing Arts Theatre. There's a preshow barbecue for the July 3 performance.

  "History is written by the winners," the play notes. "And then there's this version." The production covers major events, particularly those in which history has become mythologized, including the Revolutionary War, Louisiana Purchase, manifest destiny, the Civil War, World Wars I and II and the Cold War. These are the events most prone to "emotionally potent oversimplification," which is what makes the treatment entertaining.

  Mashing up history also offers an offbeat take on unrelated events. The beginning of the Revolutionary War is revisited through the lens of the Zapruder film and conspiracies surrounding President John F. Kennedy's assassination. The magic bullet is fired at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, which was later celebrated as "the shot heard around the world," the beginning of not just the war but American independence. Here, a single bullet kills protesting colonists, checks into a tavern for lunch and then ricochets further, back and to the left, to finish its busy day at several New England battlefields.

  The work marries entertainment conventions and history. A trio of soldiers is pinned in a trench under enemy fire and facing the horrors of mustard gas during World War I. Aware that a clever song and dance can resolve just about anything in a musical production, they resort to Boswell Sisters disguises and entertain their way of the jam. Add wigs and crossdressing humor and it's a quick and silly way to move the timeline. Revisiting President George H.W. Bush's New World Order as a morally ambiguous film noir piece is clever. Lewis and Clark recount the hardships of their trek to the Pacific Ocean as a vaudeville piece.

  It also takes an inclusive approach to history, mixing patriotic songs. revisionist viewpoints, political correctness and inconvenient truths. The party in Adolf Hitler's bunker is aware that the United States put Japanese Americans in camps.

  The work was created by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which in the late 1980s launched what would become a franchise with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). It is currently being presented at the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane University — a reprise of an entertaining production mounted in 2013 and starring Andrew Vaught, Clint Johnson and Brendan Bowen.

  In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, three actors perform all 37 of the Bard's plays in extremely minimalist fashion, culminating with a minute-long version of Hamlet that also is funny in reverse. The company's catalogue of comedic CliffsNotes includes The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), Completely Hollywood (abridged), The Complete World of Sports (abridged) and All the Great Books (abridged).

  At JPAS, Phillip Benson, Logan Faust and Drew Cothern are mounting Complete History of America in guerrilla theater fashion, with the help of a stage manager, a minimal set and a raft of silly but effective props. The work is full of names, dates and more than just the best known schoolbook history of the U.S. Its pace, parade of characters, musical bits and the cast's tone give it the feel of a sketch comedy troupe rambling through both clever observations and corny jokes.

  "It's a text-heavy play," Faust says. "But when it gets smashed up with physical comedy, it's like improv."

  The three updated the 2004 script so that history doesn't end too early. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama make appearances, and there are references to TSA screening, iPhones and social media. Some elements seem to be timeless, particularly jokes about anti-taxation sentiments and conspiracy theories, which mingle perfectly with the premise that history is remembered in an essentialist fashion but becomes richer and more amusing when re-examined.

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