Rough and Tumble theater company solidified its reputation three years ago with the absurdist production 43 Plays for 43 Presidents. Essentially a good-times romp through US political history, it strung together tributes to every executive branch office-holder to precede Barack Obama. An instrumental version of the 19th-century song "Hail to the Chief" ushered in President Martin Van Buren (number eight), oft-credited as the architect of "Jacksonian democracy." Bill Clinton — played, in typical post-modern fashion, by African-American actor Norman Gee — got to deliver a short, drawly stump speech, in which he proclaimed himself "the country's first black president." George W. Bush starred in his own Bollywood musical. Five actors got to switch off wearing the presidential coat (a blazer with an American flag safety-pinned on the back), and depict 43 characters between them.
This week, Rough and Tumble presents a similarly irreverent jaunt through history, but this time their focus is tyrants, religious crusaders, causers of genocides, and other evil-doers. The title, appropriately enough, is A History of Human Stupidity, and the scope is fairly vast — everything from the fall of Rome to the Indian caste system and 20th-century fascism. Written by Andy Bayiates (a member of the Chicago group the Neo-Futurists) and directed by Rough and Tumble founder Cliff Mayotte, this history is actually a triptych. It starts off with a protracted introduction, in which five social science teachers offer their own definitions of "stupidity." In the next act, the same five actors (all women) do a whirlwind history, capturing each era "in the style of the moment," says Mayotte. Thus, they depict ancient China in the form of a Beijing opera and examine fascism through the lens of Brechtian theater. The "war on terror" arrives in the form of an American musical. There's even a song-and-dance number called "A Holy War's Ho-Down," which spoofs religious zealotry. Act three is a Dean Martin-style roast in which the five "stupidest people in history" (Hitler, Pol Pot, Neville Chamberlain, Saddam Hussein, and Richard Nixon) get put in the hot seat. To Bayiates, the latter half of the 20th-century represented an age of "epic stupidity."
Evidently, a lot of research went into this history, both in terms of deciding which epochs to satirize and which individuals to skewer. More importantly, the producers had to agree on a definition of the word "stupid." It's actually quite slippery, said Mayotte. "Most of the time what we tend to think of as stupidity really isn't," he explained. "It's absent-mindedness, or someone being a knucklehead. Actual stupidity is when an idea doesn't work and you fail to adapt." He often gives the example of ancient Rome, a powerhouse culture with scads of great ideas (a centralized army, phenomenal architecture, aqueducts), and bad ways of executing them. Hubris, self-importance, and intransigence caused the empire's downfall. But that's just one example of many, Mayotte insisted, adding that we shouldn't just act smug and point fingers — "epic stupidity" won't die anytime soon. "We talk about stupidity like it's something that happens to some people but not us," he said. "Actually, it's all of us. We all fit this definition in one way or another." In a way, A History of Human Stupidity isn't just a spoof. The show also invites audience members to examine their own thinking. "Basically," said Mayotte, "it's this collective experience of, 'Aren't we all stupid?'"
A History of Human Stupidity runs April 8 through 25 at LaVal's Subterranean Theater (1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley). $16-$20 RANDT.org