I have the answer to the question you all are dying to ask about NextStop’s new play — “how did it treat Millard Fillmore?” — but before we get to that let’s put this thing into perspective. This is an ensemble cast performing an ensemble-written play, and it is best understood not as a history play or a play at all, but as a house party, with witty hostesses and audience participation.
Your house party will probably not be as gaudy as the one I attended on opening night — champagne for all before the lights went down, and swell eats afterward — but you should have fun at it nonetheless. The cast (Carolyn Kashner, Brittany Martz, Chloe Mikala, Mary Myers, and Sarah Anne Sillers) hang out on stage, occasionally wandering out into the audience to chat with friends. They are wearing nifty vests, cravats and striped trousers (kudos to Alison Samantha Johnson) and would look at home at any Georgetown party, or at a State Dinner in the White House.
They introduce themselves by their real names, and throughout the one hundred fifty minutes’ passage of the play will bandy witticisms back and forth. They will morph into our Presidents, from the silent and stoic Washington (Sillers) to the belligerent Trump (Myers), but it is clear that they are only playing them, and not trying to inhabit the characters as they might if they were doing, say, All the Way. It is not so much acting as really clear storytelling.
They tell each story in a slightly different manner, passing George Washington’s beautiful blue military jacket from President to President as a continuing thread. Washington stands like a statue while an offstage voice (Martz) recites his accomplishments; John Adams’ (Kashner) time in the limelight is mostly consumed with how he hates the job; when Thomas Jefferson (Mikala) steps up it is to have Ben Franklin (Myers) make self-aggrandizing jokes at the President’s expense.
45 Plays for 45 Presidents
closes February 4, 2018
Details and tickets
When it is time for Franklin Pierce (President # 14) the narrative is less about the President than about his depressed wife Jane; Sillers tearfully recounts her outsized griefs while the Chief Magistrate (Martz) sips something out of a glass (probably not apple juice; Pierce was a notorious drunk) and determines that the people of Kansas will decide whether it is a slave or free state, thus touching off “Bleeding Kansas”, in which partisans moved to that state and pretended to be residents in order to cast a ballot for or against slavery.
Sometimes the narrative goes a little off the rails. The segment on James Buchannan (President # 15) is mostly concerned with his startling resemblance to Alec Baldwin. (I do not believe Baldwin will be giving up his Trump imitations for Buchannan impostures any time soon.) The two non-consecutive administrations of the staid Grover Cleveland (President ## 22 and 24) are turned into dance parties. The event-drunk administration of Theodore Roosevelt (President # 26) becomes a cacophony, as each actor recited adventures from his relatively brief life simultaneously. The administrations of both Johnsons — Andrew (President # 17) and Lyndon (President # 36) — are represented by a single poetic meditation on nightmares, thus missing an opportunity to explore, in Andrew’s case, our first impeachment, and in Lyndon’s case, one of the most adventuresome six years in American political history.
You can get into the act by playing “how well do you know Chester Alan Arthur?” (President # 21) with Martz. I doubt you will do as well, though, as the youthful Byron, who was the guest contestant on opening night. He identified 100% of the Arthur quotes, and also made several wisecracks while on stage. Perhaps he will be President # 51, in which case the Neo-Futurists will have to write him into the play, making it the most self-referential piece of art in human history.
Yes, it is our old friends the Neo-Futurists (Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind) who have written this piece. It is full of their signature self-conscious, box-breaking wit and reverse perspective. Their narrative of our early Presidents, many of whom historians regard as great or nearly great, focuses relentlessly on our slaughter of the native population. (The observation is not unjust, but it seems a little hypocritical given that we are watching the play on land that we took from the natives.)
On the other hand, Richard Nixon (President # 37) gets a song of praise for his not inconsiderable accomplishments; a very clever little twist at the end shows how, and why, he was brought down. (Benjamin Harrison [President # 23] also gets a vigorous defense, notwithstanding that he authorized the unprovoked invasion of Hawaii in order to enrich monied American interests there).
Notwithstanding all that, the production is immensely likeable, mostly because the actors make it so. Myers is especially noteworthy. She is a terrifying Andrew Jackson (President # 7), and as Big Bill Taft (President # 27), wearing a fat suit (Big Bill toted the scales at 350 lbs. at his biggest), she is a human political cartoon, kicking and screaming as her über-ambitious wife Helen (Kashner) and predecessor Teddy (Mikala) try to coax him into the presidency.
Kashner delivers some long passages as beautifully as they are written (including a passage as Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice in which she is almost drowned out by the rest of the cast) and Martz is as agile as a dervish in the several dance scenes which director Megan Behm created. But really, the whole cast is strong.
Seeing the play, you may have cause to think that we have had disastrous Presidents before, and so should not despair over our present predicament. Warren G. Harding’s (President # 27) moment on stage was mostly taken up with the many times he said he was unqualified for the job. Mikala has one of the best lines of the play: “he is considered the worst President in U.S. history,” she says, and then stopsfor a second or two. “So far.”
Of course, Warren G. didn’t have nuclear weapons.
Oh, and the Millard? He didn’t fare so well. He didn’t get stage time at all. Instead, three cast members Googled him on their cell phones and remarked about the paucity of his accomplishments. They snorted when he said “no man should accept a degree he cannot read,” when refusing an honorary degree from Oxford. But the Millard, though not the sharpest knife in the drawer (he accepted the nomination of the Know-Nothing party in 1856), was no illiterate. By his standards, I couldn’t accept the degree either: it was written in Latin.
45 Plays for 45 Presidents by Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Generva Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston and Karen Weinberg, directed by Megan Behm, featuring Carolyn Kashner, Brittant Martz, Chloe Mikala, Mary Myers and Sarah Anne Sillers . Scenic design by Daniel Hobbs . Costume design by Alison Samantha Johnson . Lighting and Projections Design by Sean Cox . Sound design by Reid May . Eileen Goodrich, assisted by E. Lynda Bruce, is the stage manager . Produced by NextStop Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.