From the creators of “Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged),” Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, comes the three-person farce “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged).”
“What’s beautiful and playful about this piece is how much of it is the bit of keeping multiple plates spinning at the same time,” explains veteran physical actor Dan Renkin, who will be joined by Liz Davis and G. Richard Ames in the Lost Nation Theater production, May 30-June 16 at Montpelier City Hall Arts Center.
“At any given moment, either all three of us are in motion, or if two people are having a relatively calm two-hander scene, the third person is running screamingly to get to the next place for the next scene,” Renkin said in an interview between rehearsals.
In this 90-minute, fast-paced comedy, the setup is that a famous Chinese manuscript written by the brother of “The Art of War” writer Sun Tsu, called “The Art of Comedy” — by Ah Tsu, get it? — has been uncovered in a trunk, though it is missing its final chapter. Exploring this history, and trying to figure out its final chapter, becomes the quest.
Along the way are the characters in commedia del arte, including use of an actual slapstick, definitions of various “takes,” burlesque silliness, visual comedy of various kinds, and recurring gags. There are sendups of medieval Catholicism, modern politics, and even an homage to Chekhov.
“I love that we’re paying homage to all these different clowns and comedians and comedy sketches,” explained Kathleen Keenan, Lost Nation’s producing artistic director, who is directing.
“There is a joy in quick-change comedies that I find irresistible,” she said. “There’s such great permission to celebrate the art, to not hide the artifice of the art, and celebrate the craft of what we do and how we do it — to find those surprises and let people in on the secret.”
But making it work isn’t so easy.
“The challenge though is to get in, get the laugh and get out — and get the laugh to amuse but not to offend,” Ames, another Lost Nation veteran, said, amending, “offending but not offending so much that they don’t come back.”
“As I was reading it, I was laughing out loud — and I’m laughing twice as much in rehearsal just because of what my fellow actors and director are having us do. I’ve never been part of a cast this size,” added Liz Davis, the newcomer and, at 20, by far the youngest member of the cast.
“There’s a lot of stuff I’m learning, because I don’t always know the context,” she said, adding, “I’ve definitely never had this many lines before.”
“It’s not because it’s the first time we’ve had this many lines, it’s this many lines with this many physical things simultaneously going on,” Renkin said. “It’s just madness.”
And that physicality is a huge part of the show, so much so that renowned mime and clown Rob Mermin and choreographer Taryn Noelle were brought onto the production team. And Renkin, himself, is a respected stage combat instructor.
“I was never a sports person,” he said. “That’s why I fled into the arts. But this feels (like) a game of quidditch. It’s as close (as) I will get to, ‘Great, I’m on a skilled team, and we’re going to go out there and start this event and somehow win through.’ It is demanding, but it has an aspiration to it. There’s joy in achieving the bar.”
Renkin has been staging much of the show’s physical action.
“In this case, I’m mainly staging me getting hit,” he said.
“Conversely,” Ames said with a laugh, “when I read the script, I was looking at our roles, and I saw that Dan took most of the hits.”
In order for the lines and physicality to be addressed, there was a more basic issue to be confronted.
“We barely knew each other when we started — and we’re going to get intimate,” Ames said. “I’m sort of flirtatious with every gender, and dogs too — in a platonic way.”
“Getting comfortable quickly so that you can inform the show so much more” was the challenge for Davis. “The joy of it for me is how much I get to be on stage with both of them and learn.”
“Of course, it’s an incredible joy for me to be in a room with these people who have so many ideas,” Keenan said, “which, of course, becomes part of the challenge, harnessing those ideas.”
As they say, laughter is the best medicine.
“Laughter in a theatrical setting is a great opportunity for shared humanity and to remind ourselves — I raise my hand up high — to not take ourselves too seriously,” Keenan said.