44 Plays for 44 Presidents
Presidential election season is a silly season, a once-every-four-years boondoggle that jams the airwaves with dubious claims and shrill denunciations while filling the coffers of media outlets. The media may have changed, but the messages have not; "You can trust me," the typical election mantra runs. "I'm one of you. But my opponent is not! He / She is The Other, something unwholesome and dangerous!"
At this point in the cycle, the whole thing seems unwholesome at best and dangerous to one's moral fiber if not one's physical integrity. (That video of the sobbing four-year-old who's just sick of it all? Yeah, that went viral for a reason.) Bad Habit Productions couldn't pass up the opportunity to skewer and roast the whole shebang with its production of "44 Plays for 44 Presidents," continuing at the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 11, and featuring a special Election Night performance.
In a series of 44 lightning fast and whip-smart sketches of America's presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama, this revue -- it's really more revue than play -- retraces out national journey. What's surprising is how familiar some of the historic situations seem, and how rare the truly exceptional leaders have been. George Washington may have been the most blameless and extraordinary of our national leaders; if so, could it be because he didn't want the job?
There's not a tri-cornered hat to be seen here, nor a powdered wig. There is, however, a sign that lights up whenever an actual quote is being uttered; the play compressed and sculpts national history, but sometimes it's the actual words of our highest officeholders that are the most illuminating, or the most damning.
The show's five actors jump in and out of a myriad of characters with minimal costume changes, mostly consisting of passing along a dark suit jacket bearing a flag pin. This jacket is, for the purposes of the show, the very Mantle of the Presidency. It's flung on and stripped off and fought over; some presidents don't fill its lines, and others seem ready to burst it at the seams. (Teddy Roosevelt needs three actors at once to do him justice.)
The cast consists of Morgan Bernhard, Brenna FitzGerald, Britt Mitchell, Brooks Reeves, and William Moore. The female performers take on presidential roles with as much vigor as do the boys in the cast; at one point, Mitchell dons a bald cap and assumes the part of Ben Franklin, who rakes Thomas Jefferson over the coals. And why not? Franklin is the only "dead president" to grace our bank notes while actually never having served as President. At another juncture, FitzGerald plays Barack Obama.
The play ticks through the terms of all 44 presidents (and offers a scathing look at a possible 45th) with gleeful inventiveness. One is given the game show treatment; another is described with hip-hop lyrics. Some barely take the jacket at all, coming and going in under a minute, while others command a more comprehensive summary. Obscure presidents often turn out to be rascals or nebbishes, and are more or less dismissed as such, but towering figures like Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and even Richard Nixon are given their due. Millard Fillmore comes in for highly satirical treatment, as a trio of actors stuff their mouths with slices of white bread while reciting fun facts about his administration. For all the hilarity, there are also poignant moments; in one touching segment, passers-by comment on video about where they were when they heard of J.F.K.'s assassination.
Director Jeffrey Mosser uses the play's black box performance space to focus and concentrate the production's creative energy on the actors, who are vivacious and fun to watch. What props are used come out of simple storage boxes shaped like oversized building blocks and painted with stars on a blue field; the back wall boasts a collection of portraits donated by artists from around the country. Indeed, this play is currently being performed in 44 productions around the United States as part of the National Plays for Presidents festival. Politically we may be divided, but historically we're all on the same ride.
Artistically, the play can't help but seem to take sides (though Mosser has stated to the Boston Globe that it's "totally nonpartisan"). The New Deal comes in for praise, while it's Ronald Reagan's bizarre and inconsistent testimony to Congress about the Iran-Contra "arms for hostages" deal that forms our 40th president's portrait. On the other hand, if the GOP has painted itself as anything over the last two decades, it's not been as a friend to the arts. (Candidate Romney, for instance, is still gunning for PBS and "Sesame Street.")
And anyway, it's not the function of art to record impassively; it's the function of art to comment. This production is a showcase of acute, incisive, informed, and sometimes counter-intuitive commentary. One of the show's more pointed scenes shows us FitzGerald as Obama, skipping rope as critics lambast the president's credentials, aims, and accomplishments. Unfazed, FitzGerald presents her attackers with a second jump rope, upping the ante, before finally silencing them with a simple observation.
"You know," she says, "you could have been jumping with me."
"44 Plays for 44 Presidents" continues through Nov. 11 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets cost $18 in advance, $23 on the day of the show, general admission. For tickets please visit bostontheatrescene.com or call 617-933-8600. For more information, please visit badhabitproductions.org