It all started with Amerigo. The mapmaker found the New World more than 500 years ago, and as they say, the rest is history. In “The Complete History of America (Abridged),” presented by Vagabond Players and directed by Howard Berkowitz, the cast goes through 500 years of history in just 90 minutes. However, this is not your standard American history lesson – the show is filled with zany slapstick humor and juvenile antics, which means it’s kind of like the class you wish you had in high school. The goal of the three actors (Sean Kelly, Fred Fletcher-Jackson, and William B. Meister) is just to keep you laughing – from a vaudevillian Lewis and Clark act to a forgetful Ronald Reagan who keeps calling Vice President George Bush “Nancy.”
…you’ll definitely have a lot of fun.
The show starts out at full speed with a song – “The Star Spangled Banner” sung one beat off — instantly grabbing the audience’s attention. From there, we hear about Amerigo Vespucci, played as the owner of ‘Maps Are Us’ with a heavy Italian accent and a wife who slaps him with a ‘holy mackerel.’ And at that point, we know, this will not be the ‘proper’ history of our country, but a history which is laugh out loud funny with an energetic cast, which fully commits to the different roles they play.
The play is really a series of humorous sketches, kind of like Saturday Night Live but all America all the time. The American Revolution ensues because of some crazy game of telephone. The Civil War is shown as the actors posing in a slide show. Paul Revere’s ‘shot heard round the world’ is mapped out as a crime scene. And the 1920s are represented by a radio hour featuring Dodge Rambler, the boy buckaroo. The audience feeds off the actors’ screwball energy and comedic enthusiasm, even when the jokes are stale (as one of the actors acknowledges, “Come on people, these are the best jokes of 1805.”) The trio has great chemistry, and each one proves his comedic and even musical talent in almost every scene. In one sketch, the actors perform a rap about the 13 colonies while in another they sing an alternative to our national anthem (because what was Francis Scott Key thinking when he composed a song that no one is able to sing?). The variety of sketches keeps the audience interested in what’s coming next and makes the show feel more improv or late night talk show.
Part of the fun of the show is the audience interaction – both improvised and scripted. At one point, there’s a 1950s-themed “Queen for a Day” game show, which involves audience members naming the three famous women in US history (leading to the obligatory groan from the audience). During another scene, the audience is encouraged to vote for the ending of the show (although just like in elections, the electoral college wins over the popular vote).
The show ends with a confusing film noir scene full of conspiracy theories — somehow involving Lucille Ball and Fred and Ethel Rosenberg. Although the ending could use some revision, the actors’ charm and stage presence keep us interested. And the timely references to the latest presidential election keep the show current.
The actors draw on each other’s enthusiasm and use the stage as their playground. Fletcher-Jackson demonstrates some high-energy hip hop moves as he raps his way through a version of “Sam I Am” (a Dr. Seuss-based rhyme using Uncle Sam as inspiration). Kelly shows his gift for accents as Conspiracy Man and in various roles during the 1920s radio broadcast. Meister perfectly portrays the detective Spade Diamond. Kelly, Meister, and Fletcher-Jackson all have great comedic timing; the show moves fast, but they always manage to pick up their cues and keep the conversation natural.
The set is simple — a hand-drawn timeline of some of the major historical events — but of course, there are a ton of props and costumes. During World War I, the actors are down in the ‘trenches’ (aka chairs) with super soakers. Later, they don wigs to portray the Andrews Sisters (although they later realize they have the wrong war). And then there’s ‘the bullet’, which reappears throughout the show given the featured assassinations of JFK and Lincoln.
You might not get much of a history lesson at “The Complete History of America (Abridged),” but you’ll definitely have a lot of fun. The actors’ over-the-top enthusiasm is catching and a lot of the sketches are laugh-out-loud funny. The talented actors prove that freedom of speech is a freedom we’re lucky to have.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission.
Adult themes and humor
“The Complete History of America (Abridged)” runs through February 5, 2017, at Vagabond Players, 806 S Broadway, Baltimore. Click here for more information.8