Something Stupid

Show #43: A History of Human Stupidity, Rough and Tumble, April 9.

Charisse Loriaux, Louise Chegwidden, Eowyn Mader and Betsy Picart. Photo by Light at 11B

Rough and Tumble is a local theater troupe I’ve been following with interest since I caught them performing an excerpt of the Neo-Futurists’ 43 Plays for 43 Presidents at the 2006 San Francisco Theatre Festival, which I quite enjoyed.  Unfortunately the first full show of theirs that I caught, a 2008 Candide adaptation, I thought was pretty awful.  But even so, I’ve been awfully curious about their long-awaited world premiere of A History of Human Stupidity by Andy Bayiates, formerly of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists and one of the authors of 43 Plays for 43 Presidents.

As the name implies, A History of Human Stupidity takes a similar tack of short vignettes about various eras. It is in fact in the form of a lecture, the La Val’s Subterranean black-box space lined with green chalkboards. It feels very casual when you enter, with the cast–five women in white dress shirts, black pants and neckties–milling around, working the crowd and repeatedly reminding people to turn off their cell phones.

To kick things off they all become apelike cavemen, one of whom keeps getting bopped on the head by another.  When someone else suggests that the victim retaliate to stop the bullying–a concept presented here as a mind-blowing innovation greeted with skepticism that proved well warranted when it leads to other new concepts: escalation and mutually assured destruction.

Then the show shifts into academic mode and stays there for some time as they bounce around definitions for stupidity: “a good idea gone bad” and failure to adapt to shifting circumstances. All of them quickly and exhaustingly rattle off lists of the wars of history: each running through a different list, all at the same time. While mock sparring they ponder whether war is inherently stupid and agree that when “you got war in my religion, you got religion in my war … you get something stupid.”

If you’re anything like me–and my condolences if you are–by then you’re already pretty sick of the word “stupid” and wishing you could call a moratorium on it like the parents of a grade schooler.

They sing about crusades and pogroms “in the form of a hoedown” and act out a witch-hunt interrogation, but it’s all couched in the form of this arch lecture that’s beginning to become tedious. At that point they shift gears, promising, “From here on out the social scientific commentary is gone. The theater people are in the house now.”

It’s a promising shift, and for a little while that promise is fulfilled nicely. A bit about ancient Greece is aptly performed in the style of Greek tragedy, with a three-person chorus praising Ancient Greece, portrayed by Louise Chegwidden as a proud philosopher-king, a personification of logic and reason who believes he can never die. That is, until a ragged seer played by Carolyn Doyle prophesies doom for the great civilization that “invented irony and hubris–ironically, hubris destroyed you.”

This part is pretty funny, but it’s much funnier when it’s time to cover ancient Rome and it’s almost exactly the same scene, with the pièce de résistance of a dog voice barking “Jingle Bells” whenever they talk about becoming food for dogs.

Other historical chapters are very much hit-or-miss. The imposition of a harsh rule of law under the Qin Dynasty in China is covered in a vaguely Peking opera-influenced bit with everyone brandishing their neckties like swords and clanging percussion. The long Indian history of subjugation and caste divisions is breezed through in a cutesy fable enlivened somewhat by Doyle reluctantly playing a tiger.

The French Revolution as a commedia dell’arte show is amusing at first as the outsize characters are introduced but is a bit too long and repetitive, especially the fart jokes. The rise of industrialism occasions a limp vaudeville routine between Betsy Picart and Éowyn Mader, and the interpretive New Wave dance of the Cold War is just odd, but embodying the rise of Fascism with a sultry tango to “Tango Ballad” from The Threepenny Opera with new lyrics is inspired, although Chegwidden’s singing voice as Fascism sounds strained next to Charisse Loriaux’s dulcet tones as poor seduced Europe. The bit on the Chinese Cultural Revolution is intriguingly brief, and the War on Terror sequence is amusing for reasons that it would be a shame to spoil by telling. Philip Greenlief provides tinny accompaniment in an appropriate variety of styles on a “the Mini-Wurlitzer.”

A tiresome Friars Club-style roast of “the top five stupidest people in human history,” all of them deceased male 20th century heads of state, does have one funny bit when the most notorious of them says that George W. Bush really should be up there with them: “You see what I just did?  I’m Hitler, and I just got you to applaud me. Liberals.”  The less said about Nixon’s celebrity impressions the better.

The promise that the lecture bit is over doesn’t turn out to be quite true, as we return to that mode for the epilogue and occasionally before that, but it’s wrapped up in a way that feels apt, thought-provoking and true to the exercise. But that’s the thing–it feels more like an exercise or an experiment than a full-fledged entertainment, although it’s often entertaining along the way.

Each performer has a number of good moments, and artistic director Cliff Mayotte’s staging is lively enough, but the whole undertaking still feels very rough. The historical eras and examples chosen sometimes feel randomly selected and don’t add up to any coherent picture, and a few chapters could be cut outright. But it’s far from a stupid show, even if there’s still some stupid stuff in it. This one’s been in the works for some time, but it needs a bit more work before it’s really presentable.

A History of Human Stupidity plays through April 25 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley.

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