note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
Fifteen minutes before Bad Habit Productions’ madcap two-hour, two-act “44 Plays for 44 Presidents” began, the revved-up cast ran into the packed theater like a football team tearing through its paper barricade.
Nope, the show wasn’t starting yet, they reassured latecomers straggling in. They had a presidential quiz planned, where the audience earned pennies for giving correct answers. The rapid Q&A was a surefire attention-grabber, as this likable cast composed of Morgan Bernhard, Brenna FitzGerald, Britt Mitchell, Will Moore and Brooks Reeves incorporated two video monitors, large, gray-blue wooden blocks decorated with yellow stars, and a single suit jacket for its wild romp through history. The show, a thankfully silly relief from the perpetual onslaught of electio
n campaign ads and furor, closed last week after a two-week stint in the second-floor Deane Rehearsal Hall, Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) Calderwood Pavilion. It’s part of writers Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston and Karen Weinberg’s Plays for Presidents Festival 2012 performed throughout the country.
Besides urging theatergoers to marvel at and enjoy this fast-reeling, improv-style presentation, the play prompts us to wonder about where the US presidency has wandered from its idyllic, idealistic beginning with George Washington, comparing it to Genesis and the Creation of Heaven on Earth (the US), through executive triumphs and stumblings from grace. It also asks where it’s headed.
On the back wall, a variety of local artists’ colorful portraits/artistic renderings of each president were displayed, on sale for $20 each.
Bad Habits Director Jeffrey Mosser said he waited for four years to present this fractured, historic fresco, with its snippets about each president, some significant, some scandalous, and others skimmed over. In head-spinning, razz-matazz style, the five energetic cast members changed mood and character collectively. It was apparent they were having a great time together. Actor Will Moore, originally from Pennsylvania and currently living in Somerville, said the synergistic group had a blast rehearsing for six weeks and during the show’s run. Their upbeat chemistry and camaraderie was catchy throughout their interactive countdown that, at times, swept theatergoers into the act.
The group used few props, such as red balloons, flashlights, hats, placards, jumpropes, bread and lemonade, punctuated by Liz Fenstermaker’s projections of presidential portraits, quotes and scenes, and PJ Strachman’s lighting.
Besides blatant satire, there’s much to be learned here,
While reciting third president Thomas Jefferson’s many accomplishments, Benjamin Franklin kept horning in, stealing Jefferson’s glory by listing his own. Remember, the influential, inventive founding father never ran for president.
Most Americans know our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, was elected by popular vote, hated the national banks, expanded the executive power and the country’s borders, but decimated Native Americans. His successor, Martin Van Buren, continued Jackson’s policies of relocating Native Americans (think Trail of Tears). The ensemble popped red balloons, signifying ninth president, William Henry Harrison, as a notorious Indian fighter who battled Tecumseh.
Even though Ulysses S. Grant is a decorated Civil War hero, he was an alcoholic and a lousy president. And Herbert Hoover’s homeless communities,“Hooverville,” belied his campaign promises of a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.
The group also relates presidential personal losses, including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Pierce’s children, along with presidential assassinations. Highlighting John F. Kennedy’s term, they aired authentic man-on-the-street interviews.
Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplishments are voluminous, including establishing the National Parks System, while Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s term is peppered with his recorded quotes. His creation of work programs that lifted the nation out of economic doldrums during World War II is legendary, but lesser known is the fact the polio-stricken president’s mistress, Lucy Mercer, was at his side when he died.
The group took potshots at President Barack Obama with a jump-roping exercise, ending with, “We’re still a mess”.
The show ended with the group urging theatergoers to choose this race’s winner - especially Romney - because that sketch was funnier, in fact, hilarious.
Elections are over, but let’s hope this youthful group’s infectious joie de vive earned a second run sometime soon.
BOX INFO: Two-hour improv-style show, presented by Bad Habit Productions, part of the National Plays for Presidents Festival, appearing to Nov. 11 at the Deane Rehearsal Hall, Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) Calderwood Pavilion 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, at 2 p.m. Advance tickets are $18; day of show, $23. Visit bostontheatrescene.com or call 617-933-8600.