Yes, in a period of two hours and twenty minutes, plus intermission, 44 plays whoosh across the Cleveland Public Theatre stage. During that time the audience is exposed to all of the United States of America’s Presidents. Well, to be honest, there are 45 plays…one, based on the audience vote, an add-on vignette of a supposition about either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump’s reign as the next President.
44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS is a chronological, biographical recap of the lives and presidencies of those who have held the office. Some of the playlets are a couple of lines long, others many minutes in length. In the process, some of their successes and/or errors are heralded. How do you know which giant of politics is being spotlighted? First, their picture appears on the. Second, the actor portraying the office holder wears a blue and red star-spangled coat that symbolizes the presidency.
The comedy/drama/experimental/political/historic play is the brain-child of Chicago writers Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloë Johnson and Karen Weinberg, with Bayiates dubbed the “Founding Father” since he conceived the concept. There are also musical compositions dropped into and between the segments. These are the doings of Steve Goers, Laura McKenzie and André Pleuss.
The show is a time travel beginning with George Washington in an almost Eden-like setting, John Adams being “Second Fiddle,” a roast of Thomas Jefferson with Benjamin Franklin as the emcee, to William Henry Harrison being hailed as an “Indian Slayer,” Lincoln and the “freeing of the slaves,” to the assassination of Ohio’s own William McKinley, the Hooverville 1930 depression days, FDR’s live speeches and videos of the public’s reactions to his death, to “Tricky Dickey” Nixon’s rise and fall from power, the reign of George H. W. Bush (“The Bargain: Prelude to a Great Divide”), George Bush’s wrestling the election away from Al Gore, and the “Can he?” period of Barack Obama.
Few, other than U. S. presidential history geeks, will grasp all the innuendoes. Of course, there is also the question of the validity of the material. The audience is helped by an electric sign stating, “direct quote” when the material being presented was said by the holder of the office or some other credited source. (The 2016 debates could be helped by this device!)
The show is presented in Val Kozlenko’s red, white and blue pillared stage set, with a video screen up-stage center, which reveals a picture of the President being highlighted in each segment as well as visual images of some of their times in office (e.g., the assassination of JFK), highlighted by Michael Boll’s lighting, and enhanced by Eric M. C. Gonzalez’s inserted taped recordings (e.g. radio broadcasts of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.).
The CPT production has done color blind casting. The on-stage assemblage is both black and white. However, the same cannot be said for gender. All of the performers play multi-roles. They portray Presidents, wives, members of the various cabinets, assassins, and various others. The entire cast is female, though the reason for that choice is not clear.
Co-directors Dan Kilbane and Caitlin Lewins were faced with the difficult task of holding the audience’s attention as the segments went on and on. The “singing, dancing, declaiming, laughing, eating, expounding, carousing, jumping, falling, running and many, many other ‘-ings’” is almost mind-numbing.
Things are not helped by the constant moving on and off stage of boxes, podiums, and other paraphernalia. Having a blackout after almost every scene to arrange the pieces, added much time to the production and broke the dramatic flow.
The cast must collapse in exhaustion after the show. Molly Andrews-Hinders, Chennelle Bryant-Harris, Melissa Therese Crum, Sally Groth, Tanera Hutz, Coleen McCaughey and Carrie Williams act, sing and dance with vigor. Unfortunately, though they try hard, some of their lines are lost due to the echo in the theatre, the inconsistent vocal projection by some actors, and the use of accents which are sometimes difficult to understand.
The conclusion, a rap song (a HAMILTON take-off) by Hillary Clinton (she won the audience vote regarding who would win the 2016 election the night I saw the show), could not be understood. Putting the words on the screen would have helped in figuring out what was being said.
Capsule judgement: 44 PLAYS for 44 PRESIDENTS is a timely production, coming just before the contentious 2016 presidential election. Though it is much too long, and has some staging and sound problems, history buffs should still rejoice. Others may enjoy the dancing, singing, and humor presented by the all woman cast.
44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS runs through October 29, 2016 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue in the Gordon Square Arts District. There is plenty of free parking within an easy walk to the theatre. For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.