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Bad Trip: Plays About the History of Comedy and Crack Cocaine Should Be Anything but Boring. 

Tuesday, Dec 16 2014
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The truest moment in The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) isn't when the three performers kick one another in the balls (or, as they might prefer to call them, "nards"), tell dead baby jokes, or make convincing parallels between the sitcom Friends and the plays of Anton Chekhov. Rather, it's when Austin Tichenor, also one of the show's writers/directors, takes the stage alone, with a ukulele, and sings the names of all the comedians throughout history whom he loves.

This moment isn't funny; few of the show's moments are, which is unfortunate for a play about comedy. But the scene does get at the heart of what motivates the Reduced Shakespeare Company — whose founding members, not the performers seen here, created the giddy and genuinely humorous hit, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) — to perform something both so tired and so amateur (and so strange at Marin Theatre Company, normally one of the region's highest-quality playhouses). They are in love with comedy and its visionary geniuses, and they want to share that love.

Tichenor, his co-writer and -director Reed Martin, and performer Dominic Conti demonstrate decent academic knowledge of the form as they present its history chapter by chapter, citing such seminal texts as Henri Bergson's Laughter and Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, distinguishing the terms "parody" and "satire," and speeding through what feels like a Wikipedia-researched lecture on commedia dell'arte.

But it's hard to share in the performers' enthusiasm for comedy when they are so un-comedic themselves. Part of the problem is that the material is historical, meaning the jokes are old: Polish jokes, pie gags, clumsy imitations of Eddie Murphy. But even when they are original and clever, they ruin their own jokes. Calling Fox News a "white minstrel show," for instance, could have been delicious, but the show's patter is so ponderous that the punchline is clear two beats before it's said.

The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) lives up to its name only when the performers recruit volunteers from the audience for an improv sketch. It's not that the three are terribly gifted improvisers, but they excel in commenting on how bad the scene is going with the inept in tow. One only wishes they could apply that talent to the rest of the show.

Superheroes, a world premiere written and directed by Sean San Jose at the Cutting Ball Theater, has similarly sweeping ambitions. In chronicling the crack cocaine epidemic of the '80s and '90s, it seeks to reframe the troubled souls outside the theater — a particularly colorful block of the Tenderloin — as prey not of an abstract system but of real, relatable people who purposely sought to plunder their wallets, bodies, and souls.

San Jose's kaleidoscopic, kinetic production showcases the problems of a society besieged by drugs. In this movement-heavy production, the ensemble enters the stage embodying the Platonic ideal of cool. To watch these drug lords (Juan Amador, Myers Clark, and Ricky Saenz) strut their stuff is to observe a deeply compelling case for hip-hop dance as one of the pinnacles of human achievement. And seeing the gliding bodies descend into spasmodic fits shows the epidemic's tragedy in a newly visceral, newly nauseating light.

But Superheroes is not merely a dance performance, and its attempts at character and story are much more half-baked. Particularly egregious is the character of Aparecida, the reporter (Delina Patrice Brooks). Her attempt to investigate the CIA's and DEA's roles in the epidemic supposedly motivates the play, but before long she's no more than a narrator, simply calling out the date and the setting of each scene. While Brooks does manage to make her character's observation interesting — she is resigned but vigilant, hollow but burning with rage — she shouldn't be more compelling than what she's watching.

It doesn't help that the smooth talkers and con men we observe through her journalistic gaze seem to be so in love with the sound of their jive that they never develop the story beyond its broad contours. They get a cool idea for how to sell drugs by vertically integrating their industry (a real-life scheme chronicled by San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb in the book Dark Alliance), and they make a lot of money. If you don't know anything about the history of the crack epidemic, you probably won't learn much here. With scene after scene of abstraction, the rousing energy of characters' insistence on their own cool starts to fade; it starts to feel like the characters dance so much only to cover the holes in a threadbare story.

And this story should feel anything but threadbare.

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Lily Janiak

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