No matter what one might ultimately think of Freshwater Theatre’s My Life Through History, you have to give it this much: it’s likely to be the only play produced this year whose characters start out as dinosaurs and end up as dueling, skyscraper-sized prizefighters before the show is over.
That transformation is indicative of the freewheeling energy that powers Dylan Ward’s humbly ambitious satire/memoir/fantasy/metaphor. Subtitled “An Autistic Man’s Journey,” My Life Through History never hurts for a lack of ideas, although it does sometimes suffer from an abundance of them. Tonally pitched somewhere between an old Peabody and Sherman episode and a Mad Magazine parody, Ward’s script follows a group of apparently eternal souls as they travel across the history of life on Earth, manifesting themselves in new forms to match each oncoming era.
The core of the group is Ward’s endearingly awkward Thomas, a kind-hearted misfit who wants nothing more than to make some friends and figure out his role in the world. When we meet him, he’s a young triceratops who just wants to eat plants and avoid being hassled by the neighborhood meat-eaters. As the show goes on, Thomas will be a caveman, a Crusader, a Shakespearean actor, and various other touchstones of world history. Along the way, he’s accompanied by a band of oddballs, including a mother figure (Kira Pontiff), a supportive friend (Alison Anderson), a pretentious idealist (Matt Kessen), a materialistic loudmouth (Sheree Froelich), a dimwitted goof (Joe Wiener), and a grasping antagonist (Joel Raney), all of whom similarly evolve across the span of the ages.
If that sounds like a lot to pull off, it is, and My Life Through History can’t quite measure up to its own ambition. The show is constructed like a series of loosely connected comedy sketches poking fun at the foibles of various time periods, reminiscent of Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part I. The cast lobs gentle potshots at everything from the ‘60s anti-war movement to the Black Plague to the possible plagiarism of William Shakespeare. Like just about any sketch comedy, it’s a hit-or-miss assemblage, and in this case the misses outweigh the hits. Even so, the approach is affable and fast-moving enough that jokes have room to fall flat without derailing the narrative.
Elsewhere on the comedy tip, this is a show that isn’t afraid to embrace slapstick. True to the arc of world history, most of the segments culminate in some manner of battle. Director Ariel Leaf and Fight Choreographer David Ward stage the frequent fight sequences with a playful vigor that’s in keeping with the overall tone of the show. There’s also a running strain of Three Stooges-esque physical comedy between Kessen and Wiener that makes excellent use of the actors’ contrasting body types.
That embrace of physical comedy speaks to an element that makes My Life Through History a rarity on the local stage: it’s a show that seems ideal for a middle-school aged audience, particularly that segment of nerdish middle-schoolers who’d take pride in getting the historical jokes. That might seem like an ultra-specific niche, but it’s also an underserved audience that’s likely to appreciate the heck out of being catered to.
When it comes down to it, My Life Through History is all about that kind of inclusion. For all of its goofiness and outsized situations, Ward’s script is ultimately about a young man’s determination to embrace his autism and find a community that will do the same. In its most poignant moments, Ward’s Thomas lets his guard down and openly expresses his need for the love and acceptance that the world seems to dangle just out of his reach. It’s a play whose very existence supports its thesis that autism and other supposed disabilities don’t have to be a barrier to a fulfilling life in the arts.
To that extent, Ward’s show accomplishes its objective, even if it doesn’t succeed on all fronts. It’s no surprise to learn that My Life Through History began life as a Fringe show, as it retains a good deal of the ragged, homemade feel that typifies many fest entries. That sometimes works in its favor, as in the opening sequence featuring Ward and Raney squaring off in Tracy Swenson’s stylized dinosaur masks, but other times it leaves the proceedings unfocused and overstuffed. With a ton of ideas and a timeframe that extends beyond the dawn of humanity, it winds up feeling both rushed and overlong.
Ultimately, though, it’s impossible to resist the show’s ambition and straightforward charm. Even if it doesn’t all work, it’s an upbeat, quietly personal slice of human existence filled with solid performances and an infectious spirit, all coming from an angle that we don’t often get to see presented on stage. Much like its protagonist, it’s an imperfect underdog that accomplishes a good chunk of its many objectives via determination, dedication, and decency.