A smart, if uneven, look at stupidity 

A show with a title like “A History of Human Stupidity” seemingly promises a lot of silly laughs. Yet the world premiere by Rough and Tumble, a Berkeley troupe dedicated to exposing folly, is more of a sometimes-funny political or philosophy lecture on steroids than a rollicking dumb comedy.

Onstage in the basement of La Val’s pizza restaurant, the quirky, idea-packed show by Andy Bayiates features a hard-working ensemble — Eowyn Mader, Betsy Picart, Carolyn Doyle, Louise Chegwidden and Charisse Loriaux — who present the history in three disparate acts, accompanied by composer Phillip Greenlief playing his original score on a mini-organ.

First comes a wordy definition of stupidity; second, dramatizations of what the writer calls “cultural stupidity” of various eras; and third, a comedic-style roast of the most stupid people in history.

Director Cliff Mayotte keeps proceedings moving along, with inventive, often frenetic staging to accompany some dense dialogue, particularly the lengthy definition sequence, which at times does sound like a pumped-up college lecture.

What in Bayiates’ view amounts to stupidity — good beliefs gone bad, resulting in dictators, war and death — actually is pretty brainy analysis, certainly not “stupidity” along the lines of contemporary pop culture’s version as exemplified by the likes of Pauly Shore or Adam Sandler.

With a chalkboard timeline providing a visual aid, the show’s heft, and funniest parts, come as the actors portray scenes from history, both classic (ancient Greece and Rome, the French Revolution, industrialization) and others less often explored onstage (ancient China and India, and China’s cultural revolution).

Somewhat surprisingly, the final act’s roast of the five stupidest people in world history puts Hitler only at No. 3 and limits itself to 20th-century characters. Yet the bit, which overlooks George W. Bush and offers an explanation for doing so, spends a tad too much time on Richard Nixon, and isn’t as funny or stupid as a Dean Martin roast on TV.

Even though it could serve up sharper wit and more uproarious laughs, “A History of Human Stupidity” remains an ambitious, unique adventure, which, if nothing else, offers a recap of the world’s political history that goes down quite easily.

A History of Human Stupidity
Presented by Rough and Tumble

Where: La Val’s Subterranean Theatre, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; closes April 25
Tickets: $16 to $20
Contact: (510) 499-0356; www.randt.org

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Leslie Katz

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