As we are in the midst of a particularly rancorous political climate, it's easy to look back on history through rose-colored glasses. Surely we treated our leaders better in the past.
Well, as 44 Plays for 44 Presidents clearly shows, rancor has been a part of presidential politics since nearly the beginning, as political backbiting, intense cross-party rivalries, and outside events conspired to make being the leader of the United States a particularly painful occupation. The job broke many of them, and assassins took their toll as well. Attempts have been made on the lives of more than a quarter of them while in office.
The energetic and well-crafted Theatre Pro Rata production is part of a nationwide festival, in which dozens of theater companies will present the work. It's a fast-paced show, with each leader (Grover Cleveland, with his two non-consecutive terms, gets to go twice) getting a few minutes in the spotlight before the march of history — and the necessity of making a show that doesn't run from noon to midnight — replaces him with another eager soul ready to make a difference, or a buck, in the office.
The various playwrights approach the material in different ways, which helps keep the evening flowing along. Through stories, songs, and even dance, the quintet of performers, under the direction of Carin Bratlie, brings each of the leaders to life. Thomas Jefferson, for example, is upstaged by Ben Franklin, who presents a standup routine focused far more on his own accomplishments than the president's.
Of course, with such a short time frame, it's hard to offer much more than a sketch of the personalities or presidencies. What's clear is that many of the chief executives have a deer-in-the-headlights look about them as they discover that the job is both nearly impossible and offers few rewards. That comes sharply into focus for the plays about Andrew Johnson and Lyndon B. Johnson, both of whom took office after the president was assassinated and then oversaw a country in chaos. In each case, they're isolated in the corner of the stage, lit by a harsh bulb, having the same nightmare.
Strong men weaken and even die in office. Assassins creep around every corner. And no president knows whether history will treat him as a success or a failure. Often that's more complex than it seems on the surface. The Nixon bit highlights his accomplishments, from détente to the SALT treaty, while masked cast members ransack the house, stealing valuables — or at least programs — from the audience.
On the other side of the aisle, Bill Clinton delivers a typically evasive but engaging and open-hearted speech, while the phrase "How the left was lost" is spelled out on a board. Plays about our most recent pair of presidents — where the rancor is palpable among supporters and detractors — focus on the difficult, unfinished place the two have in history.
Occasional bum notes are scattered throughout the show. A rapping Lee Atwater describing how he's going to take down Michael Dukakis works about as well as every bit of theatrical rapping I've seen over the past couple of decades — in other words, not at all. At other times, the sheer speed of the piece makes it easy to lose focus, especially during the cavalcade of lesser-known 19th-century presidents passes by. (Hello, Millard Fillmore!)
The show is also a workout for the quintet of actors, who have dozens of characters to play, often switching over within seconds of the last blackout. They have great fun with it all, whether it's donning masks, as in the above Nixon bit, or sporting Teddy Roosevelt mustaches (he, by the way, comes off as well as anyone in the show).
It's a sharp bit of theater that is being replicated across the country. As part of Pro Rata's production, an accompanying art exhibit includes representations all the presidents (again, two for Cleveland). The artwork is as varied as the presidents and adds to the depth of the evening.