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Every four years, the American people come together to debate important issues, engage in democratic dialogue, and realize they agree on absolutely nothing. All they can agree on is the importance of who will be the next President. The Chief Executives, powerful and sometimes power-hungry men, are the subject of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, now playing at The Neo-Futurarium. Originally conceived in 2002 (with one less president, naturally), this “re-elected” piece chronicles the gentlemen who’ve sat in the Oval Office, presenting well-knowns such as Lincoln alongside lesser-knowns such as Fillmore.
With five credited writers (Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston, and Karen Weinberg), the “plays”—two to five minute pieces—naturally vary in genre and tone: Sometimes a President is quoted, other times we learn about the Leader of the Free World through interesting facts and figures. Director Helena Kays utilizes tap dance (to symbolize candidates who skirt election issues), ballet, farce, roasting, and storytelling. Occasionally incorporating improv, the show attempts to elicit everything from tears to smiles and guffaws to rage. Unfortunately, though, these pieces also range in quality, from mildly amusing to flat. The demands of the piece felt difficult for the ensemble to tackle, a bit like managing a hundred different moving parts in a governmental office.
Home to the long-running, late-night Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, The Neo-Futurarium is a converted space with the feel of a schoolhouse lecture hall. The venue is well-suited to the educational element of 44 Plays and to its structure, which mirrors Too Much Light’s 30 plays in 60 minutes, but it also places its performers under a microscope. Perhaps Kays gave her six-member ensemble too much free reign, because the cast (Bilal Dardai, Joe Dempsey, Rawson Vint, Dina Marie Walters, Ryan Walters, and Rani Waterman) is inconsistent in delivery, sometimes spot-on and other times silly. They trade off donning a “star-spangled jacket” to symbolize the presidency, moving about the theater or sitting at a desk. Behind them is a chalkboard where a map of the United States is gradually assembled over the course of the evening. As America grows from a patch of colonies to a unified, sea-spanning nation, expert videographer Michael Fernandez animates the portraits of the men who stood at its helm.
The evening, accompanied by musicians Mike Przygoda and Curtis Williams, brings to mind The Reduced Shakespeare Company’sThe Complete History of America (abridged), although the intention of 44 Plays is not purely comedic; the humor is balanced with serious pieces, a few of which were surprisingly quite moving. The famous and often forgotten First Ladies of the U.S. are given an opportunity to share their emotion, and some of the more beat-up Presidents are shown in a different light. Each vignette is indeed for the President, but in seeking to honor, remember, and memorialize the presidents of the past, the plays do not combine to create something greater than the sum of their parts. By the end of its term, 44 Plays will not be remembered by those who saw it as a Lincoln, but neither is it a Fillmore.
44 Plays for 44 Presidents is holding the office through November 17, 2012. For tickets, visit http://www.neofuturists.org. Originally published at StageandCinema.com