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Shtick Shift

If you had a conventional grammar school education and watch a little Nick at Nite, chances are you don't think of Sebastian Cabot as the discoverer of the New World. According to The Complete History of America (abridged), however, it was this Englishman -- and not the Italian explorer with the same name -- "who first set foot on the continent of North America." As the script of this daring new interpretation of the last 400 years reminds us: "He later became very famous as Mr. French on TV's Family Affair."

Make that the last 12,000 years, because The Complete History, a three-man vaudeville-meets-National Lampoon comedy revue that recently opened at the Florida Shakespeare Theatre, is nothing if not expansive. Throwing together TV culture, Jimmy Durante imitations, balloon animals, political correctness, and bad puns (not to mention several buckets of water aimed at the first few rows of the audience), this show promises to enlarge the version of history presented to us by our schoolteachers. It also wants to remind us that revisiting the past can be somewhat enlightening and useful. As explained by cast member Ale Weinberg, The Complete History "is like a Post-It Note on the refrigerator of America that says, 'Hey, America! Don't forget to rewind your Blockbuster tapes!'"

Most of the chronological rewinding that takes place on stage at the FST, under the lively direction of Barbara Lowery, is done by the antic cast, who in one instance unspool a seemingly endless roll of toilet paper to illustrate the limitations of our history texts. Identifying this prop as a time line, one cast member explains, "It covers all historic events prior to 1492."

And what might those events be? Take this sketch, which embodies the goofy spirit of this 90-minute blitzkrieg of jokes: Actor John Baldwin, dressed as a Native American, begins to tell the story of the people who were already in America when Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World. "Ladies and gentlemen," says fellow actor Weinberg, "we are indeed fortunate because John is part Crow Indian. His great-grandmother was a full-blooded Crow." At which point trouper Ken Clement interjects, "And had a wing span of eight feet."

Well, don't look at me. I thought it was hilarious. But I'll be the first to admit that it probably takes a unseemly tolerance for Gilligan's Island references and allusions to Noam Chomsky to enjoy this show. Complete History was written and originally performed in 1993 by Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor, three guys who, in various combinations (sometimes with help from additional playwrights and actors) have created something of a franchise of comedy revues parading as abbreviated versions of history and literature -- you may remember last year's The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (abridged), which also played at the FST.

Complete History, which presents Lewis and Clark as a nightclub act, among other aberrations, doesn't assign any new perspective to American history that hasn't already been set down by generations of Saturday Night Live writers, not to mention offbeat historian Howard Zinn. It does, however, manage to resurrect the lowly vaudeville routine and give it new respectability.

Don't believe me? You try writing a skit as seamless as the one portraying the so-called shot heard 'round the world that began the American Revolution. Anchored to a joke that reflects our affection for Hollywood's Kung Fu, as well as for the men who fought at the bridge in Concord, it features a series of people crossing the stage, addressing each other, respectively, with French, Mexican, and Chinese accents. The first one says: "I hear a shot, monsieur!" The second: "I hear a shot, senor!" The third: "I hear a shot, grasshopper."

Indeed, when the so-called new vaudeville, fostered by the likes of high-art clown Bill Irwin and the dance group Pilobolus, took fire on Broadway a decade ago and gave new life to juggling and miming, no one dreamed the "old vaudeville" ever deserved a second look. (Jackie Mason's comeback still seems more an exception than a trend.) But this show is a good argument in favor of putting the archaic theatrical form back in the spotlight. And while I wouldn't go so far as to claim that Long, Martin, and Tichenor are the vanguard of a new comedy movement, Complete History does distinguish itself from hundreds of other pop-culture send-ups by virtue of its highly inventive wordplay. Who would have guessed that the lowly pun, for years treated with contempt, still has the power to surprise us?

For example, you may think you've heard every Wizard of Oz joke ever invented, but this show explores new territory with a skit that puts Munchkin-size soldiers under the command of George Washington at Valley Forge. The four-foot-tall, trench coat-ed colonials smugly contradict the great general, who insists he asked for "regular, full-size soldiers." One of the would-be army privates points out that the term "minutemen," especially when put in writing, can be read more than one way.

Pronunciation gags notwithstanding, this sketch succeeds because of the considerable talents of the three FST actors, all apparently born to lunacy and good timing, who handle their props as well as their lines and who readily throw dignity to the wind when necessary. As is the case with other segments of the show, the minutemen routine also turns a boisterously tasteless joke (the soldiers also claim to be victims of "vertical discrimination") into a jab at political correctness.

Neither openly liberal nor conservative, the creators of Complete History play it safe with their audience by taking shots all across the American political spectrum. For instance, when Thomas Jefferson suggests the Bill of Rights should begin with the phrase "Got a problem? Throw money at it," James Madison retorts, "No, no, too liberal. How 'bout this: 'Screw the poor. Let's party.'" Likewise the show irreverently targets other groups who have, in various ways, tried to put their own imprints on our readings of the past, among them women, blacks, environmentalists, and those who would rewrite the "Star-Spangled Banner" to make it less militaristic.

If anything threatens to capsize the buoyant humor of Complete History, it's the casting. In this as well as other productions of the play that have been staged in Boston, London, and Washington, D.C., the troupe has consisted of the three white male playwrights or people who resemble them. While the FST's Clement, Baldwin, and Weinberg are all topnotch performers (Weinberg, who plays most of the women's parts, is especially good), it's undeniable that the show's dynamic would be completely changed by casting women, gays, or nonwhites.

Does this matter? The orthodox makeup of the cast doesn't alter the fact that the show itself is riotous good fun, give or take a few Jesse Helms jokes. But the subtle, underlying message seems to be: "We white men can make room for the rest of you -- and we may even revise history to accommodate your points of view -- but we're still in charge of the jokes."

Despite its tongue-in-cheek promise to eradicate "all forms of racism, sexism, ageism, weightism, hair-colorism, making-funism, and Godism," Complete History doesn't draw on quite as wide a range of points of view as it would have us believe. If it were truly as clever and incisive as it thinks it is, the revue would make fun of its own cultural biases, too. Complete History starts out by reminding us that "history is written by the winners. Tonight it's our turn." A small quibble, perhaps, but after an hour and a half, I began to wish it were someone else's turn.

The Complete History of America (abridged). Written by Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor. Directed by Barbara Lowery. Starring John Baldwin, Ken Clement, and Ale Weinberg. Through November 22. Florida Shakespeare Theatre at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, 305-445-1119.


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