A tip: when The Complete History of Charleston for Morons opens with a bit of audience engagement, keep your hand down unless you either a) really know your local history, or b) enjoy public humiliation. The show gets off to a quick start by managing to poke fun at residents who aren’t natives (but claim to be “from” Charleston), born-and-bred Charlestonians, and the tourists that descend upon the city for the Piccolo Spoleto Festival each year. There is a lot of history in the city, the actors acknowledge, and they assume the audience knows next to none of it. Everyone in attendance, after all, has chosen to attend a show that requires self-identification as a moron.
A production that is clearly intended for universal appeal, the show plays fast and loose with the facts while it chases the laughs. The pacing is generally smooth and consistent. The jokes, ranging from potty humor to political commentary, come in rapid succession. The imparting of knowledge takes a clear backseat to entertainment early on, and the closer the chronology gets to the present, the farther from educational the show becomes. By end of the final skit, Tom Selleck has been mentioned more than any single historical figure, possibly all historical figures combined. And that’s not a bad thing; the Selleck jokes get big laughs.
The cast of three, all playing themselves, or at least characters sharing their names, show clear comfort in their roles, and familiarity with the material. Greg Tavares, R.W. Smith, and John Brennan each have a primary function, and there is a clear sense of shared vision, but all three seem more than happy to drop their established roles to serve the material and keep the audience engaged. In general, however, Tavares handles most of the direct instruction, while Smith plays the serious actor trying his hand at improv and Brennan serves as the reliably immature jester. Some of the references to the process, with actors “popping out” to talk about improv, can feel clunky and distracting. The show is much more successful when it sticks to Mel Gibson and the tendency of early settlers to keep it literal when choosing street names. Jokes about sexual organs are also reliably successful.
Sets are minimal, but adequate. There is infrequent, but very effective, use of spotlights and sound, but the success of the show clearly hinges on the actors’ ability to keep the pacing crisp and the jokes flying. The best parts all seem to come from marrying the spirit and energy of improv to the more tightly scripted material, within the framework of a history lesson told through skits. There are a few in-jokes for the locals, but for the most part, no prior knowledge of Charleston, let alone its’ history, is assumed or rewarded.
While it’s doubtful many people will leave The Complete History of Charleston for Morons feeling as though they know much more about the city than they did an hour before, the consistent laughs, strong performances, and clear affection the cast have for their adopted city more than make up for it. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of truly educational options for those wishing to learn more about Charleston’s history, anyway. Ask anyone who lives here, wherever they’re from.