Pink bonnets and white kerchiefs. Foam-rubber tomahawks and Piggly Wiggly koozies. Hand-drawn weather radar screens and black-marker poster board street maps. These are among the more extravagant props in the otherwise uncluttered, hour-long comedic history lesson The Complete History of Charleston for Morons.
With its simple sets, minimal props, sparsely scattered sound effects, and skillful acting, Charleston for Morons was a blast on opening day. The cast consisted of Charleston-based trio of John Brennan, R.W. Smith, and Greg Tavares — all of whom took on the roles of multiple characters as they raced through over 300 years' worth of Lowcountry history. The long-running show started six years ago. They've tightened up quite a bit since their early runs, and they've developed a smoother more evenly paced delivery.
Presented as "an educational afternoon" to the packed theater, things kicked off in clever insult mode, emphasizing the fact that only true morons would bother showing for presentation with "For Morons" in its title. Right away, they located a self-proclaimed genuine Charlestonian in the audience and pressed him hard with three tough pop-quiz questions, singling him out as the number one ignorant representative of the roomful of morons. A funny chant of "Mo-rons! Mo-rons!" ended the introductory scenes.
With Tavares (the show's writer) acting as the main history professor, the trio wasted no time getting into full gear. They warned of a rapid-fire approach — "for the sake of brevity and dramatic effect," as Smith put it. They weren't kidding. While most of the scenes followed a script, they improvised along the way. The most effective improvisation come when sparked from scripted moments of phony improvisation where the actors popped out of certain scenes. The actors spoofed their own craft and their own personalities as much as the historical material.
The threesome examined the early settlement years and the colonial period of Charles Towne under the guise of a TV reality show, switching from Channel 1663 to Channel 1670 as they mentioned various kings and lords proprietors. "The 1700s are a bitch," announced Tavares as they rolled into the 18th century — the period where they spent most of their efforts spoofing major political leaders, battles, stereotypes, and Hollywood misinterpretations.
As the lesson progressed from the Revolutionary period into the early 1800s, they created some very funny moments with references to Gone with the Wind and Walt Disney's Song of the South. Brennan's Southern belle character was especially silly.
Smith's stone-faced newsman character in the CNN-style "Secession Room" scenes got some big laughs. Even the normally stoic Wolf Blitzer would have chuckled.
While Tavares, Smith, and Brennan examined the Holy City's colonial and early wartime periods in relative depth, they skipped and bounced through Reconstruction and 20th century at a brisk pace. "Charleston fermented for a few decades," said Tavares leading into a bit about the so-called Charleston Renaissance of the mid-1900s. "Then, suddenly, it was cool to be old."
Whether joking about the cartoonish figures or the most redneck moments in Charleston's history or mentioning tidbits about the old merchant class or slavery in relative seriousness, The Complete History of Charleston for Morons covered plenty of ground for the tourist-heavy audience. The longtime Charlestonians in the crowd enjoyed the hilarious slap-in-the-face refresher course, too.