It’s an understatement to say that the timing of the play 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, currently showing at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, is on point with the presidential election only a month away; but the play is not a new one. In fact, the play, originally titled 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, premiered in 2002.
The latest iteration of the play sets the stage (literally and metaphorically) for this next election before the virtual curtain even rises. While the audience files in, 1960s style folk music is playing in the background with songs like Neil Young’s “Even Richard Nixon Has Got Soul” and The Magnetic Fields’ tune “Washington, D.C. (the greatest place to be).” The irony is not lost on the audience, made up largely of Chapel Hill locals and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students and faculty. Before the play even begins, the audience is primed for this biopic play, currently running as part of the nationwide Plays for Presidents Festival (http://playsforpresidents.com/).
Director Mark Filiaci, a veteran of more than 50 productions throughout North Carolina and other Southeastern states, admits that he believes the five actors who are on stage throughout the production to portray the 44 presidents, as well as many secondary roles, have a demanding task on their hands when performing in this production. But, he states, “They eagerly attacked this work with commitment, which is the basic necessity for this kind of work.”
For those in the audience who believe they have a handle on understanding the presidents, some of whom were even testing each other prior to the play’s beginning by seeing how many of the presidents they could name, there are a few surprises in the plays. Not only is every type of stage delivery utilized (singing, dancing, film, participatory moments, comedy, drama, melancholy, pratfalls, catcalls, and any other kind of stage trick one can imagine), but the audience is also reminded throughout the plays whenever an actual presidential quote is delivered through the use of an offstage lighted sign that reads “Direct Quote.”
The challenge is for the lighting designer (Liz Droessler), the props designer (Brittany Bugge), and the costume designer (Jessie Hill Gillooly) and the actors (Michael Brocki, Derrick Ivey, Page Purgar, Ros Schwartz, and Stephen Wall) to coordinate all of those tools in a very fast-paced event that spans hundreds of years, costume changes, lighting shifts, character and mood swings, and all of them have to fit concisely or the timing will upset not only George Washington’s cherry tree but every presidential move after that … like a set of dominoes. (Funny, that sounds like politics, doesn’t it?)
One of the many brilliant moves of this play is the use of a quilt-like coat that acts as a character in itself — being passed from president to president and resembling, in many ways, a type of Joseph’s Coat of many colors. It is a respected metaphor, the mantle — if you will — of responsibility and heaviness that the office of President of the United States assumes, even if the person elected is someone who really didn’t expect to have the job to begin with (such is the case during the act centered on George Washington).
Some presidents readily accept and don the jacket, parading on stage in the assumed jacket with the attitude of someone who owns it; even though everyone knows the jacket is a temporary adornment — and a used one, at that. Others either carry the jacket or wear it uncomfortably, as an ill-fitting mantle that he is eager to shed once the presidential term is over. Still others shrug it on and relax into it, as though it’s a comfortable old sweater one doesn’t want to remove.
The fact that the actors could utilize this stage prop in many different ways is a nod not only to their talents but to the sensitive direction of Mark Filiaci. Few costumes are more effectively designed to be “actors” as this presidential jacket.
The action in 44 Plays requires the players to move quickly from one characterization to the next, and the writers (Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston, and Karen Weinberg), some of whom are alums of the Neo-Futurists of Chicago (http://www.neofuturists.org/), challenge the actors to move from comedy to tragedy with barely a pause. Some of the acts are surreal (one showcases Ben Franklin (Ros Schwartz) basically lampooning Thomas Jefferson (Derrick Ivey). Some of the acts remind the audience that no matter how extensive their understanding of the presidents, there might be some facts that they don’t know (such as the successes of the little-known Benjamin Harrison).
Some moments are quietly profound (the visual images of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and funeral, though iconic in nature, cast a somber note in an otherwise zany performance). And other moments allow the actors to impersonate the easily-impersonatable (such as the languid southern drawl of Jimmy Carter).
The frenetic and hilarious pace of the play hardly allows for any down time, yet one can’t help but keep a mental count of the number of presidents who died in office (8 — William Henry Harrison was online in office for 31 days before catching pneumonia and succumbing; Zachary Taylor had gastroenteritis; Warren Harding died of a heart attack; Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away after a cerebral hemorrhage; and there were four Presidents who were assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy).
In addition, we’re reminded of the number of presidents related to each other: George W. Bush is the son of George Bush; John Quincy Adams is the son of John Adams; Benjamin Harrison is the grandson of William Henry Harrison; James Madison and Zachary Taylor were second cousins; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt.
Many other presidents are distant relatives of each other, though the connections are not noted in this play (or evident to many in the audience). Very few of the First Ladies are mentioned in the play, with the notable exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, who is actually quoted and given a reverence none of the other First Ladies receive.
Throughout the well-pieced together vignettes, each of the five actors (two women, three men) has his/her moment on stage (and some even roam the audience off-stage), yet several appear more comfortable and seasoned, able to elicit laughs or gasps from an audience that has likely been privy to other well-acted performances throughout the Triangle. Ros Schwartz is a firebrand on stage, her larger-than-life movements and facial expressions easily translatable across the stage lights, and both Michael Brocki and Stephen Wall employ their considerable chops with aplomb.
In keeping with its election-year status, 44 Plays for 44 Presidents ended with the actors running through the audience giving everyone a voter registration form and urging each ArtsCenter Stage patron to either complete it or pass it along to someone else who hasn’t voted yet. 44 Plays for 44 Presidents is a nonpartisan ploy to simply get the vote out, just as the play is a nonpartisan romp through the lives of our presidents. To enjoy a more historical perspective of the madness that is the election season, go see 44 Plays for 44 Presidents at the ArtsCenter Stage in Carrboro Oct. 4th through 7th.
NOTE: The ArtsCenter cautions Triangle theatergoers: “Anyone who plans to attend the Sunday, Sept. 30th, matinee at 2 p.m. should be aware that the Carrboro Music Festival [http://carrboromusicfestival.com/] is occurring that day as well and parking will be limited. We urge patrons to arrive early to find adequate parking. Here is our map of additional Carrboro Municipal Parking: http://artscenterlive.org/sites/default/files/uploads/Parking 2012.pdf. There will also be a shuttle leaving every 10 minutes from Carrboro Plaza at Highway 54 into downtown Carrboro from 12 noon to 9 p.m. More information on that can be found here: http://www.ci.chapel-hill.nc.us/index.aspx?recordid=5488&page=22.”
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 2nd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/10/02/2383200/review-presidents-hands-out-a.html; Sept. 28th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Cliff Bellamy: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/20291933/article-‘44-Plays’-an-educational-drama (Note: You must register first to read this article). (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 28th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/09/just-in-time-for-the-presidential-election-artscenter-stage-is-presenting-44-plays-for-44-presidents/.)
ArtsCenter Stage presents 44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS at 8 p.m. Oct. 4-6 and 2 p.m. Oct. 7 at 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina 27510.
TICKETS: $18 ($13 ArtsCenter Friends and $14 students and seniors 62+), except $10 apiece for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-929-2787, ext. 201, or http://www.etix.com/.
PARKING: http://artscenterlive.org/sites/default/files/uploads/Parking 2012.pdf.
Plays for Presidents: http://playsforpresidents.com/ (official website).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council.
This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.