44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS. Written by Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnson and Karen Weinberg; directed by Emily K. Harrison. Produced jointly by the University of Colorado Department of Theatre and Dance and square product theatre company through Oct. 3. Tickets available at 303-492-8008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
44 PLAYS is an interesting collaboration all round. The plays—literally 44 pieces at about two minutes each—were developed by a theater group in Chicago called the Neo-Futurists. Emily K. Harrison, the producing artistic director of the local theater group square product, was invited in 2012 to participate in the 44 Plays for 44 Presidents National Festival, and square product theatre mounted the regional premiere of the show that fall. As the 2016 campaign began to take shape, she proposed a collaboration with CU, she says, “because I thought [’44 Plays’] was a great choice for student actors, designers and audiences” who might be about to cast their first presidential ballots. The resulting production is currently playing at the University Theatre on the CU campus as a joint production between the school and the theater company. Before the show, the audience enters into the political arena by voting on who they want to see as the 45th president; the show has alternate endings depending on how the voting goes.
One of the impressive points to this production is the amount of research that had to go into developing these short individual pieces. The playwrights have managed to capture personal idiosyncrasies of the various presidents as well as the political climate during which they were elected. We learn some interesting things about each man (so far) who has held the office and what he was up against during his term in office. George Washington’s philosophy was that no man should seek the office of President; rather, the office should seek out the man devoid of personal ambition to serve. Well, that didn’t last very long! The Thomas Jefferson piece was almost solely a roast of Jefferson by Benjamin Franklin, who obviously thought he was much better suited for the position and a better, more accomplished man all round.
Andrew Johnson was indicted for high treason against the country during his term; Grant had a drinking problem. In 1876, Rutherford Hayes and his opponent, Samuel Tilden, had a fiercely contested election. In the first of many controversies over electoral vs. popular vote, Hayes won the electoral vote but Tilden won the popular vote. They settled it by allowing Hayes to become president under the condition that he stay out of Southern politics. (That didn’t last either.) Andrew Jackson was a ruthless land speculator; Harding had unscrupulous “friends” that got him in trouble.
The modern-day presidents don’t fare any better. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to cover up his polio disability, Truman’s torment over dropping the bomb on Japan, and Ford’s clumsiness are all illustrated. Nixon is the victim of a sarcastic ballad called “We Love Dick,” during which his chorus steals things from the audience. Most telling to this child of the ’60s is the somber and touching way Kennedy’s assassination is covered. The whole troupe sits staring at a TV screen with their backs to the audience while big screens above the stage show a montage of clips . . . just the way all of us who lived through it spent the week between the day in Dallas and the salute from tiny John John.
The 13 members of the core group slipped between the years, assumed the identity, and presented the sometimes funny, sometimes sad scenes with ease and aplomb. Ms. Harrison’s direction was strongly visual and kept the scenes moving smoothly. The actors’ basic costume of black pants, white shirt and tie was accentuated with an occasional slip into a red, white and blue “Hamilton”-like Presidential coat, designed by Birdie Plank.
One of the difficulties of trying to promote and review pieces at the university is that they have short runs. This sharp, crisp production only has a few more performances, but if you have any interest at all in the progression of politics in the United States, this show will warm and enlighten you.
WOW factor: 8.5