“George Washington in the Garden of Eden” opens the show with a creation story. James Garfield’s “Dance of a Thousand Ironies” is a tragic ballet. Thomas Jefferson isn’t memorialized, he’s roasted, stand-up comedy-style, by Benjamin Franklin.
The Neo-Futurists of Chicago premiered “43 Plays for 43 Presidents” ten years ago (Actors Theatre of Louisville staged a production in 2008) with a brief play for each occupant of the Oval Office—Grover Cleveland gets two, since his terms weren’t consecutive.
Since then the play and the country have picked up another commander-in-chief, and so the production grows. The show creators say that in this age of short-term memory—of the media, politicians and the public—“44 Plays for 44 Presidents” celebrates “the long view” of the American presidency and political system.
In honor of the election year, they coordinated 44 independent productions of the play across the country. Productions have been staged at a variety of venues, from professional theaters like Rochester’s Geva Theatre to high schools in San Jose and Little Rock.
Louisville’s own version opens Thursday at The Bard’s Town Theatre. Producer and company executive director Doug Schutte says the show is witty, but it’s also educational, delving into the events that defined the presidents and their terms.
“It certainly treats things with seriousness and respectfulness, but it pokes fun where fun should be poked,” says Schutte.
A play about politics could mean protest theater or a polemic, but Schutte says “44 Plays” deals with historical trivia, quirks and legacy—not ideology, as he initially feared.
“Coming from a theater group, you would probably assume it would be liberally biased, which can be a turn-off to a number of people,” he says. “But I think every president is treated fairly.”
Schutte professes a personal affinity for President Clinton, but says President Nixon’s play is one of his favorites (“utterly hysterical”) and that “Cleveland’s first tour of duty is pretty ridiculous.”
Five actors will play all of the roles, with a single coat designating the president in each scene.
“It sort of blends these presidents together into a collective a little bit, and then their actions are the things that differentiate them,” says Schutte. “It really makes you want to explore more.”
“44 Plays” runs through November 10. No word yet on whether the production will pick up an extra play after Election Day.