L.A. TIMES (CRITIC'S
George Washington to the current Bush, a few words from our commanders in
If Jon Stewart, the Smothers Brothers and the League of Women Voters
invaded the Hall of Presidents at Disney World, the results might resemble
"43 Plays for 43 Presidents" at Sacred Fools Theater. This vitally
engaging survey of every American chief executive turns acute pertinence
into exhilarating theatricality.
First produced by the Neo-Futurists of Chicago, "43 Plays" sifts
presidential history -- and facts forgotten by history -- into a
quasi-vaudeville that fits set and prop designer Tifanie McQueen's austere
portico as disarmingly as the "Direct Quote" sign that flashes atop the
Written by Andrew Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo, Chloë Johnston
and Karen Weinberg, the 43 short plays represent a rare case of multiple
writers forming a more perfect union. Their prismatic, annotated approach
spurs director Paul Plunkett and a superb ensemble to run the agitprop
gamut, from hilariously ironic to gravely arresting.
Bayiates' opener, "George Washington in the Garden of Eden," finds the
magnetic Michael Holmes' faintly bewildered commander in chief donning a
symbolic coat of office, hinting at the cavalcade ahead. The stylistic
diversity serves each subject, whether it's sly Rafeal Clements leading
the charge in Weinberg's "Teddy," or piquant Tina Van Berckelaer's ineptly
professorial Woodrow Wilson in Benjamin's "A Lecture on Myself."
Throughout, audience-contact tactics are apt, and the final maneuver
registers a masterstroke. Aided by designer John Sylvain's dense lighting,
Mary McIlwain's unfussy costumes, Jaime Robledo's kaleidoscopic sound and
Adam Bitterman's projection graphics, the effect is delightfully,
thoughtfully provocative, which distinguishes this ineluctable L.A.
-- David C.
Special to The Times
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L.A. WEEKLY (PICK
OF THE WEEK)
not just the who, what and why that makes a history lesson viable, but the
how – as in how you tell it. That’s the premise behind this witty,
sardonic collection of mini-plays about the American presidency. Studded
with song and dance, these distinctive one-to-five minute segments –
originally created by five writer-performers belonging to Chicago’s Neo-Futurists
theater ensemble – reveal some basic human truths about the 43 individuals
who have inhabited the Oval Office (as well as some uncomfortable aspects
of our nation’s political legacy). Each segment plucks facts from the
textbook version of history and combines them with lesser known, more
subversive revelations. Among the famous, the infamous and the
all-but-forgotten, only a few, including George Washington (Michael
Holmes), emerge with reputations untarnished. The ironical portraits
include John Adams (Kelley Hazen) as a fretful neurotic who signed
legislation shredding the Bill of Rights, Indian fighter William Henry
Harrison (Tina Van Berckelaer) who enthusiastically exterminated thousands
of Native Americans but on his deathbed sought treatment from a Native
American healer, Ulysses Grant (Rafael Clements) who, as a young, man
despised guns but was forced to attend West Point by his father. Of
particular interest this election season is the sketch about the 1876
electoral college shenanigans that put popular-vote loser Rutherford B.
Hayes in the White House. Directed by Paul Plunkett, this production
features an accomplished ensemble of six, adept at underscoring both the
playful and the poignant.
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BACKSTAGE WEST (CRITIC'S
two and a quarter hours, director Paul Plunkett's splendidly varied and
imaginative production offers 43 two-minute plays, each about one of our
fine (or, very occasionally, fiendish) presidents. As one might expect,
the plays differ in style and mood — some are surreal, some biographical,
some comedic — and they offer an equal variety of tones, ranging from
straightforward respect to cool irony and genuine pathos.
The collection of plays (written by Andrew Bayiates, Sean Benjamin,
Genevra Gallo, Chloë Johnston, and Karen Weinberg, members of Chicago's
Neo-Futurists theatre collective) provides what is essentially a living
advanced placement U.S. history class, albeit one that is more
entertaining than what you'll find in your old high school textbook. The
plays avoid cheap shots, approaching the subject matter with respect but a
singular lack of reverence.
Of course, the most important prezzies are represented, including a wise,
stoical George Washington (Michael Holmes), who tries to set a gracious
tone for his administration but who watches with horror as his
less-virtuous successors battle for ownership of his symbolic coat.
There's a sad-faced and glacial Abraham Lincoln (Constance Ejuma), who
turns into a monument before our eyes, while other members of the cast
intone lists of the dead who perished during the Civil War.
As far as our modern era's rogue's gallery of leaders and reprobates is
concerned, Richard Nixon ("One Nixon, Underdog") is showcased by a series
of actors who discuss the reasons Nixon was a good president after all —
while sneaking through the audience, stealing people's wallets and
handbags. George H.W. Bush (Kelley Hazen), in "Promises," is an easygoing
hip-hop scoundrel, while Bill Clinton (a spot-on impersonation by Holmes)
genially oversees the destruction of American liberalism.
Admittedly, a few of the short plays amount to little more than living
political cartoons, but others are fully developed, suffused with drama
and humor. The six-person ensemble shines throughout, assaying the
beloved, as well as the "B-string," presidents (such as Scott Leggett's
amusingly dim Van Buren and creepy waltzing Holmes as a bloodthirsty Polk)
with skill and gusto.
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‘43 Presidents’ not your everyday Potomac Follies
So many Americans are following every twist of this year’s Obama/McCain
narrative that an obsession with all things presidential is becoming
downright fashionable. Naturally, I was a trendsetter in this fashion, as
in so many others. Even as a child in the Dark Ages, I was a presidency
As young kids, my brother and I received a mail-order plastic model of the
White House, complete with three-inch statuettes of each president. We
spent hours pushing the miniature presidents around our bedroom floor and
voicing the remarks that we made up for them – to the extent that we
pretended that Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson co-hosted a TV series
called “The Abe and Andy Show.”
Not surprisingly, we learned the names of the presidents in sequence at an
early age. The hardest part was mastering that stretch of mostly
forgettable names between the presidencies of our charismatic co-hosts
Jackson and Lincoln. To this day I can rattle off that section of the list
without hesitation, even though I don’t know all that much about the men
behind those names.
Enter 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, at Sacred Fools Theater. This enormously
entertaining revue consists of 43 short scenes about each American
presidency, presented in chronological sequence, from Washington through
W. And some of the best scenes are about some of the most obscure
William Henry Harrison, anyone? The second president on that list of
relative unknowns between Jackson and Lincoln, he died after only one
month in office. What would you say about him? But the creators of 43
Plays use his previous history as an Indian fighter, and a cluster of red
balloons representing some of the Indians, to create a chilling image of
the depths to which the presidency has sometimes fallen.
The show goes for chuckles more often than chills, as seen in the title of
the sketch that immediately precedes the Harrison piece: “Van Buren:
Jackson’s Bitch.” Yet even if you don’t care much about the relationship
between Jackson and Van Buren (which, strangely enough, was already
depicted on the L.A. stage earlier this year in Bloody Bloody Andrew
Jackson), the comedy of this scene has a startling currency.
Jackson blithely informs Van Buren that the banks are closing. Van Buren
responds: “The less government interferes with private pursuits, the
better for the general prosperity.” These au courant words – and many
other lines throughout the production – are highlighted by a “DIRECT
QUOTE” light above the stage that means exactly what it says. A few lines
later, Van Buren comes up with a solution. It’s not called a “bailout” –
43 Plays was first produced in 2002, not last week – but you can fill in
the words yourself.
In the first scene, George Washington introduces a coat that’s then passed
down from one president to another. Three men and three women perform all
the roles – not just the chief executives but seemingly dozens of other
people. The only exception is an audience volunteer who is drafted to wear
the coat of Chester A. Arthur.
Bully for director Paul Plunkett’s brilliant cast. Rafeal Clements,
Constance Ejuma, Kelley Hazen, Michael Holmes, Scott Leggett, and Tina Van
Berckelaer pack a surprising number of nuances into this quick-hit
The script was created by the Neo-Futurists of Chicago, whose so-called
“Founding Father” is Andrew Bayiates. The other writers are Sean Benjamin,
Genevra Gallo, Chloe Johnston, and Karen Weinberg. The writing isn’t quite
as sharp with the recent presidents as it is with their predecessors,
probably because we’ve all seen a hundred sketches about Clinton and Bush,
even Nixon. It’s harder to come up with something fresh to say about them.
But any group that can make me care about Franklin Pierce has my vote.
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comedy, drama, dance, and music, the half dozen actors in this crash
course in presidential history conjure a theatrical experience that's part
SAT prep, part Schoolhouse Rock! and which recounts, in
chronological order, the entire story of the US presidency "from George W.
to George Dubya." A timely primer on the context and significance of the
impending vote, 43 Plays for 43 Presidents entertains as it
educates, but don't worry — there's no final exam at the end. Unless you
count the election, that is.
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