REVIEW | ’44 Plays for 44 Presidents’ a Provocative Historical Revue

The Bard’s Town Theatre opened its production of “44 Plays for 44 Presidents” last night. Directed by the theater/restaurant co-owner Scot Atkinson, the show is part of a nation-wide festival in which 44 theaters mounted productions of the Neo-Futurists’ historical comedy anthology in the months leading up to the presidential election. It’s a fast-paced, provocative look at American history and leaders (each president gets a two-minute play) , with brilliant moments of solemnity and absurdity alike. 

“44 Plays for 44 Presidents” runs through Nov. 10 at The Bard’s Town (1801 Bardstown Rd.).

The Bard’s Town ensemble is quickly building into one of the more reliable wells of on-stage talent in the city, and the five actors who play all of the roles, dance some very energetic numbers and occasionally break out into song (Amy Steiger, Stephanie Adams, Ben Gierhart, Colby Ballowe and co-owner Doug Schutte) don’t disappoint. Some presidents lend themselves to larger performances, but Adams’s understated George H.W. Bush (“The Bargain: Prelude to a Great Divide”) is as memorable as Schutte’s cowboy Andrew Jackson (“King Andrew I”).

The set is simple–an oversized scale balanced with blocks for slave-owning and free states in the first act is the most elaborate prop, and one of the five actors dons a special coat to play the president in each play. This isn’t the kind of theatre where you’re supposed to suspend your disbelief — all of the exposed seams are deliberate, and the artificiality of a staged production is highlighted by devices like quotation marks above the stage which are lit (by The Bard’s Town regular Megan Brown) every time a direct quote from history is spoken. Atkinson pulled an all-star double shift running the show’s extensive sound and light cues alongside multimedia specialist Brown.

The script was written by a team of Chicago’s Neo-Futurist troupe, based on extensive historical research filtered through a lens of what is most funny and most human about each president. One of the most admirable elements of the play is how complex foreign, domestic and personal issues are fit into such brief segments. Some presidents are portrayed as ridiculous (“Van Buren: Jackson’s Bitch”) or vaguely sinister (“Like Ike?”), but most fall somewhere in the middle, with only a few emerging as heroes (George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, mostly). Richard Nixon receives perhaps the most surprising vindication (“One Nixon, Underdog”), with a rousing musical number celebrating his counter-intuitive political maneuvers we might have forgotten in the wake of Watergate (founded the Environmental Protection Agency, jumpstarted Affirmative Action and strengthened the National Endowment for the Arts). 

The most effective display of balance happens in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s play (“Character Above All”), which reviews his 12 years in office by stating facts about the man and the president, leaving it to each audience member–and history–to decide whether they made him a strong leader or weak: under his leadership came the New Deal and expanded federal government saftey net programs, but also the Japanese-American internment camps and early knowledge not acted upon about the Nazi plans for the Holocaust. I know my own reactions, but I also understand they aren’t universal. In short, it’s complicated. 

The play isn’t all dates and titles and legislation. We learn more about First Lady Sarah Polk than her husband James K. in “Destiny,” but through her character we see how rapidly the country changed during one woman’s lifetime.  One of the more poignant moments is Gierhart’s poetic Andrew Johnson monologue (“AJ”), delivered in the half-dark after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination ended his play. When he reprises the monologue as Lyndon Johnson (“LBJ”), not only is its emotional power doubled, its reappearance underscores how cyclical history can be–which is either comforting or disturbing, depending on how you look at it. 

The biggest take-away from “44 Plays” is how often our country repeats its victories and mistakes. For a nation founded on change, the play really demonstrates how American politics continues to revisit issues like immigration, privacy in exchange for security, international conflict, voting ethics, campaign finance and the red/blue state divide. It also makes a point of pulling back the curtain a bit on how we learn our own history–filtered, skewed and often reduced down to bare sketches. Mere days before a big election, the play serves as a reminder of how big or little an impact one four-year term can have on history, but in the end, it does encourage the audience to vote and have their say in that decision.

Each production in the nation-wide festival filmed one segment, compiled as “44 Films for 44 Presidents.” The Bard’s Town took Zachary Taylor’s “The Suspicious Death of Old Rough and Ready,” and filmed it in Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, outside of the president’s mausoleum. Here’s the full film:

44 Films for 44 Presidents from Karen Weinberg on Vimeo.

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