The Theater Factory’s The Complete History of America (abridged) directed by Jen James is a delightful and frantic journey through the formation of the United States, from Vikings to Native Americans to all sorts of the scandals, wars, presidencies, doctrines, and missteps that arise when nation building – a work with a mix of vaudeville, camp, sketch comedy, slapstick, and one-liners. The actors leave the audience a bit winded by their unceasing movement and quick-paced dialogue,
The plot is not new: select the most important events from leading up to and including the formation of America, add countless scandals and conspiracy theories, comedy, song, dance, and some extremely campy antics, and you have The Complete History of America (abridged). Blink, you miss a funny one-liner. Turn away, you miss a fool running across the stage with some daffy prop. If you miss a joke or a pun, not to worry, there’s another following it.
This cast of three (Nick Mitchell, Chelsea Bartell, and Adam Seligson) scramble through this fast-paced, don’t-stop-to-take-a-breath comedy, forcing the audience to pay close attention to every bit of action taking place on the stage. They hold the audience captive playing the likes of Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, George Washington, J. Edgar Hoover, Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, WWII soldiers, and just about any major figure who had a hand in the making America.
Although no actor plays the “lead” role, Nick Mitchell (Complete Hollywood abridged, Newsie, Cat, The Bridge in Madison County) acts as the narrator for much of the action. His booming, resonating presence is the tour de force, the “adult” so to speak. He is a steadfast presence, playing all the “manly characters” and whose actions serve as a springboard for all of the slapstick humor (although in this comedy, nothing is actually manly nor serious – Mitchell dons a dress while portraying J. Edgar Hoover). In the second act, Mitchell delivers a performance containing so much dialogue that I had to turn and look back at the sound board to see if someone was holding cue cards.
The original play, written for three men, however, contained James’ one of two major original successes – that of casting a woman, Chelsea Bartell (Hairspray, Hedwig and the Angry Witch, The Wizard of Oz, A Christmas Carol), as a leading “man/woman/whomever.” You name it, she plays it. And she does a splendid job stealing the show. Her comfortable and hilarious abilities seem to come from her heart as if she is adlibbing her scenes. No forced dialogue from her. Additionally, this being the first night’s production, her portrayal of George Washington (whose wigs falls off mid-dialogue) and Adolf Hitler (again, whose mustache falls off in mid-dialogue) didn’t deter her. As simple covering the mouth with a sheepish “oops” even endears her more to the crowd. Bartell is a scene stealer, and it is very difficult to take your eyes off this actor. She’s that good.
Adam Selegson (A Good Old Fashioned Redneck County Christmas, Anything Goes, The Odd Couple), in keeping with the idea of “the fool” as played in all of Shakespeare’s comedies, ends up playing, many times, the woman to Bartell’s man. As important as Mitchell and Bartell were (in some spots), it was Selegson who supplied the real slap-stick. In the second act, Selegson plays a frantic Lucy Ricardo, asking a film noir-ish private dick, Mitchell, to find poor Ricky, who has been deported. And that’s what made it so funny – comic relief inside a comedy.
With no real setting (a large GOOGLE sign appeared in the back of the stage letting the audience know that fact-checking could be done just as easily as a Wikipedia search) the empty stage forces the three actors to fill it with bold and madcap personalities.
James’ other major success was the addition of timely music throughout the play and scene changes. This added a necessary continuity and connection from sketch to sketch. The music helped move the pace of the show. She’s a smart director and seems to know exactly what the audience wants and gave it to them. Everyone left the theater happier than when they came in, and that was directly the result of James’ directing and the acting of Mitchell, Seligson, and especially Bartell.
The cast’s extremely self-deprecating portrayal of all characters made the play that much more enjoyable. It’s healthy (and very Shakespearean) to see characters make fools of themselves for the entertainment of others. That’s the way comedy should be: it stands out as being part Saturday Night Live sketch comedy, Second City Improvisation, Garrison Keiller live performances complete with homemade sound effects, and campy Falstaff Shakespearean wit.
THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF MAKING OF AMERICA (ABRIDGED) is definitely worth the trip to Trafford. I would even recommend seeing it twice so as not to miss the quick dialogue and puns contained in the script. (A rewind button would have come in handy – “did I just hear that?”) And the chemistry James finds among Bartell, Mitchell, and Seligson works. It is obvious she had to find just the “right” actors to make this comedy work.
Special thanks to the Theatre Factory for complimentary press tickets. The Complete History of America (abridged) runs through February 26th. For tickets and more information, click here.