|Amy Steiger, Ben Gierhart, Stephanie Adams, and Colby Ballowe
in The Bard’s Town Theatre’s production of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents.
Photo by Doug Schutte.
44 Plays for 44 Presidents
Written by Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston and Karen Weinberg
Directed by Scot Atkinson
Reviewed by Keith Waits
44 Plays for 44 Presidents is a stunt, but it’s a pretty good stunt: a rapidly paced series of vignettes and scenes (none are, strictly speaking, plays) that represent each of the American presidents in some fashion. It is being simultaneously produced by 44 different companies across the United States in the days leading up to Election Day. The need for compression of the subject forces a range of approach that makes this show a veritable catalog of theatrical style and technique: monologues both solemn and comic, musical numbers, slapstick physical comedy, pantomime, blackouts and tableaus, as well as video pieces are all effectively employed to deliver a message about the parade of politicians who have served as chief executive.
As with any show of this nature, there are mixed results. A few of the bits fly by with little impact, but most are good for at least a laugh, and there is substance enough to provoke thoughtfulness and at least a modicum of enlightenment and understanding for most audience members. It certainly reminds us that the rancor and absurdity we are witnessing in our current campaign season are nothing new to the Presidential campaign dynamic.
Not unexpectedly, the most impactful scenes are often concerned with the better-remembered Presidents. An absorbing account of the four-time elected Franklin D. Roosevelt proved genuinely moving – not for revealing any new information as much as for how it balanced a clear-eyed critical perspective with a reverence for this titan of mid-century American politics. Abraham Lincoln received an equally complex treatment that was slightly more abstract but still forceful. When we reached JFK, the entire sequence was rendered as a video piece displayed on two large screens – an apt choice for its emphasis on Kennedy’s position as the first President “elected” by television, even if the impact was slightly diluted in contrast to the onstage action.
Some of the best and most succinct pieces observed the utter mediocrity of some of the men. The early part of the 20th century seemed to be the dog days of the office as an institution, with a dull stretch between Woodrow Wilson and FDR. But my favorite was the quote from William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor who wanted more than anything to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court: “I don’t even remember being President.”
The staging employed several good gimmicks, such as quotation marks that lit up whenever an actor was directly quoting a President while in character; the aforementioned video screens were liberally employed to augment the activity and several times took the lead, as with JFK; and the accumulation of states as blocks on a giant scale on the back of the stage neatly chart the progress of Manifest Destiny. For all of its free-wheeling and anarchic stagecraft, this is a dense and weighty script trying to impart a great deal of information in a brief span of time, and the clever use of all of these techniques goes a long way in accomplishing that goal while keeping the proceedings entertaining enough to keep the audience engaged.
The ensemble of five worked well together, adroitly trading off duties as a unified troupe of players. They were Stephanie Adams, Colby Ballowe, Ben Gierhart, Doug Schutte and Amy Steiger.
By the time we reached the climax, a tidy metaphor that sees Barack Obama feverishly skipping rope like a double-dutch champion, the cumulative effect of the comprehensive, if decidedly, offbeat history lesson manages to engender enough patriotic and civic pride to allow the final, earnest plea to vote on November 6 to feel genuine and welcome.
44 Plays for 44 Presidents
November 1-10 at 7:30 p.m.
The Bard’s Town Theatre
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205