Just in jest

The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

March 30 – April 27

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Brisbane Arts Theatre’s latest mainstage production sets a frenetic pace from its opening scene. It’s a necessity perhaps given its titular in-jest aim to share with the audience the complete history of comedy, albeit abridged. What follows is a somewhat comprehensive trip through comedy in many of its guises, including memorable tell of ‘the chicken’ and its multiple road crossings – in Ancient Greece, Elizabethan England…. the common riddle even experiences a postmodernist take and a Broadway musical portrayal. Although “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” has many laugh-out-loud moments like these, however, a momentum is difficult to sustain due to its essentially quite feeble premise.

The show revolves around its players (Willem Whitfield, Ben Kasper and Stephen Snape) uncovering an ancient Chinese 13-chapter manuscript on the art of comedy by Ah Tsu (say it out loud for the joke), brother of “The Art of War” writer Sun Tsu. The sacred relic is, however, missing its final chapter. Act One, which starts strongly as homage to the history of comedy, sees the audience guided through the twelve surviving chapters, including introduction to characters in commedia del arte, slapstick (and use of an actual slapstick) and the recurring threat of a potential cream pie attack. Act Two, in particular, ebbs and flows as the 13th chapter is discovered and the iconic, overplayed clown Rambozo (Ben Kasper) is called upon to share his wisdom after much earlier ‘what would Rambozo do’ foreshadowing.

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Of course any show covering a topic of such personal taste as comedy is going to lead itself to mixed audience appreciation, especially in its coverage of such a wide variety of comic styles, but there are some clear standout scenes. While early physical comedy bits fall a little flat (pun not intended), Act One ends with a brilliant Charlie Chaplinesque strobe-light sequence, that not only captures the look of a silent film but gives audience members some of the night’s biggest laughs. And, after this, despite its audience participation, theatre-sports style, the second act seems less dynamic compared to Act One’s energy and use of screens to support its lessons around the funniest duos and alike.

While “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” may not always live up to the potential of its title, this is not through its cast’s lack of enthusiasm, which cannot be faulted. With simple staging and basic black costumes, the three jump in and out of numerous roles with ease, managing the madcappery of its many necessary props and costume additions. The versatile performers not only play off each other well but each have standout individual scenes in which to showcase their talents.

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“The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” is an irreverent take of what is shown to be the complex art of comedy. The show is marketed as being comedy from the high-brow to the low and all that is in between, yet its stick to the simplest of comedy types mean a lot of its jokes are of the same ilk that eventually lose appeal. Its variety of this base level humour, however, still offers something for most audience members to have as a highlight, whether it be from its slapstick, mime, clowning or double (and single) entendres. Some local and topical additions are well-received and there are many ‘I can’t believe they went there’ groans in response to political and religious references, which do much to enliven its essentially kinda, sorta just funny and especially drawn-out construct. As is observed in its dialogue “If you smile, it’s amusing. If you laugh, it’s funny.” How big your grin or bold your giggles, may just depend on your personal fondness for funny.

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