Luckily, everyone can laugh at the satire and farce of this play no matter which side of the aisle one resides. It's about backstage, behind the scenes, the real story behind the story. The spin room. The bedroom. There's even room for conspiracy theorists to get a kick out of this one. As comical as politics can seem, it's a tragedy when we stop to think about it. Seeing a reflection of how we conduct affairs in the U.S.A. staged as a farce, however, provides permission, nay, the obligation to laugh. And what a release, because the play is a hysterical hot mess, a complete riot, and I mean both of these qualities as accolades.
Unlike All Girl Frankenstein before it (written by, Bob Fisher) in which an all-female cast portrays male characters, (a bit of a reverse-Shakespearean gimmick albeit, a successful one), this play is an all-female cast playing women characters. Being the dumbass that I am, I asked in an interview for Shamrock McShane's great preliminary write-up, Acting Presidential at The HIPP, "What do you want men to take away from this play?" The answer was somewhere between "We don't care," and "Who gives a shit." Perhaps with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, this comment illuminated my favorite aspect of the play and what I personally took away from it. This play is Punk! It's not afraid to be what it is, it doesn't care what you think of it, but regardless, you will be in the mosh pit having the time of your life. You'll be smilin' and bleedin'. Chances are you'll not only laugh your ass off, you'll ultimately stand in solidarity with the struggles, power, and diversity of these women and of women at large. No male gaze required. I'm told this play is the first all-female Broadway farce.
The set is marvelous and gives you a real sense of the history and pageantry of the White House. The majesty of the interior works to further highlight the insane tribulations of our characters as they gradually devolve into a wasted frantic debacle. It's beautifully illuminated by Morgan Lessman (U.F.) in rich golden tones. The sound design by Amanda Nipper is as seamless and atmospheric as ever. Terrific song choices by female hit-makers punctuate scenes, and yes, expect to hear the cast performing musical numbers in spectacular fashion. Helen Dominguez perfectly outfits the characters in appropriate couture reflecting the characters' various professions and stations. An especially stand-out item is Nichole Hamilton's designer undercut pixie bowl-style wig. I truly thought she cut her hair for this performance and was astonished at the after-celebration to discover it had been a rug. A nod to safe and well-executed fight choreography by Tiza Garland. Also, suitable and several hilarious wild props and tchotchkes from Erika Capin, who clearly has a shrewd eye for detail.
The acting is committed and with strong intention, which makes the comedy rise to great heights. Often the comedy is clever, rarely subtle or nuanced. Even Three-Stooges slapstick and campy violence find their way to the stage. Every character chews scenery and steals the stage from each other with every further twist and turn, and language so exquisitely crude, John Waters might offer a side-eye. By the time we reach the finale, we really are in a climactic comic mashup. You're bound to exit the theatre with a big dopey grin plastered to your face. That's what happened after the thunderous applause and standing ovation of opening night. Each actor brings a fully realized character to bear, with a full rich palate of needs and wants. At some point, these women question their various commitments to this dumbass POTUS, and that catharsis gives the play depth and heart. They signed up, they know their purpose, and they're going to finish the job even if sorting out the mess goes unrequited or is less than honorable. It's for the good of the country. Just ... why him and not us? That is the question.
In an interesting piece of script trivia, playwright Fillinger lists the characters in order of importance to the President. Would it surprise anyone to find that the pregnant mistress lands about in the middle of this list and the wife roll-calls dead last? Don't worry. She knows what's up as you'll see. Fillinger's dedication in the script is this: "For any woman who's found herself a secondary character in a male farce."
Stephanie Lynge's direction is deft and solid. She makes the most of her actors' strengths, and although her vision presents itself, collaboration is welcome at the party. Towards the end at times, several characters showboat simultaneously and pull focus a bit, perhaps that's by design; a comedy of chaos. The front runners for show-stealing are easily Nichole Hamilton as Harriet, Chief of Staff, and Kelly Atkins as Jean, a sharp buxom-blond Press Secretary whose confidence rolls when the cameras do. They have such ease on stage, and Vaudevillian chemistry as they riff and play off each other with tangible emotional content. We immediately buy these characters in their respective roles; we're instantly enraptured with their purpose. Margaret (dL Sams) is the First Lady, astute and saucy. She's engaged in Chess with the Tic Tac Toe players. The disdain for her boneheaded husband is palpable, but for the sake of World Peace, she wisely puts on a brave face paying homage to protocol and manners. Make no mistake though, in the wings, some folks are undoubtedly going to catch Hell for it. Stephanie, a somewhat inept secretary in eternal fear of job security (Paulina Machado), still manages to throw a great wrench into the circus. Aneisa J. Hicks as Chris, a famous high-brow reporter, knows how to build rapport in the service of a story. For all her personal charms, nothing will get in the way of her goal. The appearance of Sophia Page as Dusty, a street-smart pubescent firebrand whose dalliance with the Prez is nothing short of uncomfortable, makes the Monica Lewinsky scandal seem trivial at best. She’s entirely convincing in her role. Her complication to the narrative may be a the most awkward of all. Luckily, Bernadette (brilliantly played by Michelle Bellaver), the President's renegade lesbian sister, has drugs. That can only help, right? So long as she can get that pardon and stay out of jail. Bellaver achieves what every comedian and actor strives for on the stage: she KILLS! Nothing about her performance in this role is unfunny. Her approach beyond simply character study is further embodied in the physical. She walks Bernadette's walk. She doesn't leave room for a breath between laughs for every moment she's on stage.
The true joy of this production is more than just the talents and genius comic timing of the cast. This is a real ensemble at work here, and one can feel the collective spirit of joy and fun in the performances. This play is also a co-production between the Hippodrome and the theatre department at the University of Florida. Some will take from this play a message about patriarchy, but I think there's a more profound and yet far simpler take: what we have here is the White House as a fun-house. This play is for everyone. It appeals more to what we have in common than to our differences, and we're all in this farce together. In this play, there are no secondary characters on stage. Every single woman is the star, and every single character plays a role in avoiding World War III. They do it together by leaning into their strengths. In overcoming adversity, they rise in diversity and power to do the one thing we need more of in this world, inspiration leading to our collective highest state of being: laughter.
Shows continue through October 1.
* Tickets: https://thehipp.org/potus/