I am a bad American. This is true for many reasons, but for the purpose of this review we'll focus on the fact that I am woefully ignorant about our country's presidential history. I got a 90-something on my American history Regents exam, but I'll be damned if I can remember any of our former commanders-in-chief beyond the big ones (you know, the guys with their faces on money or engraved on mountains) or the ones who have been in office since I've been alive (that would be Carter to the present).
It's shameful, truly. So I was excited when Geva first announced that it would be doing "44 Plays for 44 Presidents" as part of its offerings for the Rochester Fringe Festival. Not only did it sound entertaining, but I hoped that I would learn something about the men who have guided this country as well.
The show — a Geva Theatre Conservatory production, directed by Sean Daniels — succeeds on both fronts. It does entertain, throwing at the audience a non-stop series of short plays (generally two minutes or less) that range from dramatic reenactments to comedy skits, musical theater to mime. Some incorporate audience participation, many feature actual quotes by or about the presidents they regard, and one even includes a thrilling double-dutch jump-rope sequence.
Some of these pieces work better than others — some just downright don't work at all — but I found that I did learn at least a little bit about the 40-some presidents in our nation's history. In some cases, I was amazed just to know they existed; I had totally forgotten about James K. Polk. While in others, I found my previous vague perceptions completely altered. (I always thought of William Henry Harrison — who died after 32 days in office — as a joke, but it turns out that he was apparently a ruthless SOB.)
The show is a brilliant choice for an election year, and in the spirit of bipartisanship (yeah, right), I found that it came down pretty evenly on both liberals and conservatives. For instance, Richard Nixon of all people gets a fairly celebratory segment focusing on all the good he did for this country (like helping to empower the National Endowment for the Arts — who knew?), while Bill Clinton gets pretty much savaged in his section.
Five writers are associated with the project, which explains why most of the plays feel so incredibly different from one another, save for a clever repeating trope for both presidents named Johnson. I found that the pieces that relied more on comedy or musical theater worked best (the bit for George H.W. Bush, which features droning lyrics over electropop and a human disco ball, is just priceless). Less successful are virtually all of the silent/mimed plays, many of which are inscrutable if you know nothing about the presidents they concern. For instance, the piece on James Garfield left me utterly baffled, and tells the audience absolutely nothing about the man except that he was religious, and he was shot. Surely there's more to him than that.
There is, in fact, more to Garfield than that, and to all the rest of the presidents for that matter. If the brief morsels of information (and innuendo) in this show pique your interest, I highly recommend heading over to the play's page on the Geva Theatre website, where you can download the educational document put together by dramaturg Gustave Rogers. The 100-page PDF delves much more deeply into the lives and political careers of every president, and gives context to some of the choices made by the show's writers. (Example: the reason Ben Franklin acts as roastmaster in the Thomas Jefferson play is that TJ was reportedly painfully shy — so it makes sense that he wouldn't take center stage even in a play about him.)
The Geva Theatre Conservatory program features young actors who are either in college or just recently out of it. This production featured Danny Kincaid-Kunz, Bre Melino, Brooke Paolotto, Christine M. Rose, Courtney Scheer, Ricky Thomas, and Jonathan Wetherbee, all of whom played myriad characters, everything from actual presidents to "maniacal hunchback No. 2." Each actor got a chance to shine, and all displayed a wealth of talents that included singing, dancing, drama, and comedy.
Depending on what happens in about a month, we may have a 45th president to add to the line-up. Fittingly the show ends with the players leaving it up to the audience to vote on how to end the show: an extended version of the Barack Obama play, or another play about Mitt Romney. The audience on the Sunday matinee I attended was apparently predominately Democratic, so we got to see Obama take it from, "You know, you could all be jumping with me." But if anyone has seen the Romney version, please post your take in the comments section of this article on City's website. I'm curious to know more.