Arriving just in time for the election season, 43 Plays For 43 Presidents is a lickety-split rollercoaster ride through the last 219 years of American history.  

Written by a quintet of playwrights, the 43 Plays (running an average of 2 to 3 minutes each) provide mini-biographies of all 43 U.S. Presidents (actually 42, with Grover Cleveland meriting 2 skits) … in a potpourri of styles.

“George Washington In The Garden Of Eden” tells G.W.’s story Genesis-style:  “And He called the light the United States and the dark Great Britain.”  Thomas Jefferson gets roasted a la Friars Club by a standup Ben Franklin in “The Roast.”   In “An Uncomfortable Position,” John Quincy Adams affects a series of poses for his applauding servants until a barking bulldog named Andrew Jackson scares him away, though not before grabbing his Presidential coat.

One of the most unfortunate periods of American history, the forced march West of Native Americans, is illustrated in the dramatic “As Karma Sees Fit,” in which William Henry Harrison, bathed in a blood red light, bursts balloon after red balloon strewn across the stage, a metaphor for the Indian slaughter.  It’s the era of Manifest Destiny in “Destiny,” featuring James K. Polk and wife Sarah, intoning on how destiny has affected their lives.  In “The Suspicious Death of Old Rough & Ready,” Zachary Taylor dies after just 16 months in office while eating breakfast cereal, his head kerplopping into the bowl.

In a very funny “Yawn…,” cast members devour slice after slice of bread as they attempt, mouths fuller and fuller, to tell Millard Fillmore’s story.  (Can someone explain this one to me?) Drama takes center stage in “Of Broken Things,” with an embittered Jane Pierce blaming husband Franklin for the death of their child.  Things once again take a comedic turn in “Everyone Has A Theory,” in which cast members share gossip about James Buchanan, reputed to be America’s first (and to date only?) gay President. “What about all those nephews?” they wonder.

In one of the evening’s funniest and most relevant skits, “Will The Real Chester A. Arthur Please Stand Up?”, an audience member is chosen to play Arthur and take the oath of office, illustrating (with shades of the current election) that anyone, no matter how unqualified, can run for high office in the U.S.A.

43 Plays For 43 Presidents, which has already had a number of well-reviewed regional productions, was written by Andrew Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo, Chloë Johnson, and Karen Weinberg. Sacred Fools cast members Rafael Clements, Constance Ejuma, Kelley Hazen, Michael Holmes, Scott Leggett, and Tina Von Berckelaer all do first rate comedic (and sometimes dramatic work) in a large variety of roles, under the clever direction of Paul Plunkett.  As many of their lines are direct quotes (whenever one is spoken, a “Direct Quote” sign lights up above the stage), the cast deserves extra credit for the precision memorization required by the script.  (As we move to the modern era, the recorded voices of actual Presidents give the direct quotes.)

Mary McIlwain designed the versatile multi-era costumes. Tifanie McQueen’s set design features TV monitors which introduce each new play and President, occasionally projecting photographs as illustrations.  Jaime Robeldo contributed an excellent sound design, and Natasha Norman choreographed several dance sequences, including one for the Grover Cleveland “Uncle Jimbo Does What He Wants,” in which cast members rock and roll to a Little Richard-style tune.

How much you’ll enjoy 43 Plays For 43 Presidents doesn’t necessarily depend on how much of your American History classes you can recall, but the more you know, the more fun you’ll have.  Even for those who aren’t particularly U.S. History savvy, though, 43 Plays is still likely to entertain, and to inspire a Wikipedia search or two, or forty-three to be more precise.

Sacred Fools Theater Company, 660 N. Heliotrope, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 19, 2008

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