Thursday, October 27, 2016

44 Plays For 44 Presidents

Photo: Steve Wagner
The Hall of Presidents

In 1995 my (then) girlfriend and I took a drive across the upper Midwest and we stopped in to the Neofuturarium to see Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, (TML) an attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. They had recently unveiled their Hall of Presidents, which was at that time forty-two large modernist paintings which present not just the man, but the idea of each man who was once President of the United States.

The Hall of Presidents exhibit was originally conceived by Greg Kotis (Urinetown) and Ayun Halliday (No Touch Monkey) with each portrait executed by a different artist in a variety of media. Witnessing the Cleveland Public Theater production of 44 Plays For 44 Presidents, I was reminded of these paintings, and the way in which each of us views the distant past, our personal past, and the very, very recent past.

The Neo-Futurists cleave to the premise if not the fascist politics of the Italian Futurists and the aesthetic of TML can be neatly summed up by F.T. Marinelli’s Futurist Synthetic Theatre manifesto of 1915, to wit; It's stupid to write one hundred pages where one would do. TML consists of extremely brief plays about absolutely anything, making their point quickly and elegantly, and then moving on to the next.

Taking inspiration from their Hall of Presidents, five members of the company, Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston and Karen Weinberg, set out to compose one brief play for each of the (at that time) forty-three men who had held that position.

Actually forty-two because we count Cleveland twice. It’s confusing.

Triple-A Plowed Under (1936)
Living Newspaper

I read the original script for 43 Plays For 43 Presidents over ten years ago, and there was an obvious resemblance to TML, very brief plays varying from the absurd to the sublime, only in this case not presented at random, and focused on a common theme.

In performance I felt the production less like TML, and more like a Living Newspaper, one of those offered by the Federal Theater Project in the 1930s. These plays, with titles like Power, Injunction Granted and Triple-A Plowed Under, relied heavily on research to present facts to an audience, often with a specific social agenda.

Like 44 Presidents, Living Newspaper plays were also meant to entertain, commenting - sometimes heavily - on the issues presented, and utilizing a wide and creative variety of performance styles, dance, music and technology to make their point.

Cleveland Public Theatre
Remember The Ladies

We brought the kids, age 11 and 13. I knew they would be entertained, but they were also educated and that’s nice, too. My kids do not normally have anything to say about a play immediately after a performance. We'll ask and they just kind of shrug.

We hadn’t even left the theater Monday night when my daughter said quite emphatically, “That was really good.” And I was hoping she’d say that, because there is one particular component of the Cleveland Public Theatre production which is unique among all those that have been produced in the past fourteen years.

In Cleveland all the performers are women.

I have commented recently about so-called “non-traditional” casting. Choosing actors of color for roles historically played by white actors, or even actual persons from history of European descent. It’s not actually new, Shakespeare’s women were played by boys, the Moor of Venice almost certainly by an English actor in blackface. Somehow going the other way has put people of privilege in a tizzy.

Watching a talented ensemble of seven women portray all of the American Presidents what impression did that leave on my teenage daughter? She hasn't expanded on that yet, only that it’s "really good."

1994 - President Clinton
by Jean Chernoff
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

The two acts differ considerably, and much of this is due not only to the writing, and decisions made by this production team, but also the considerable revisions the script has received since it first premiered. The entire play wears its political views proudly on its sleeve, but the events of the nineteenth century are handled with less gravity than those of the twentieth.

For example, in As Karma Sees Fit, William Henry Harrison’s life prior to his inauguration is summed up by his personal responsibility for the wholesale slaughter of native peoples. It is implied that his death thirty-two days after his having been sworn into office is some kind of “indian” curse. We laugh at the irony.

However, in The Not-So-Fair-Deal, Truman describes “the moon, the stars, and the planets” having fallen upon him by FDR’s demise (his words) then drops a symbolic heavenly body onto a war flag of Japan, and there is nothing funny about it. Which president was responsible for more death? Why is one darkly amusing and the other simply awful? Will time + tragedy ever = comedy in this case?

In fact, it is around FDR’s play that the production, as written and performed, veers into the hagiographic. The original version of FDR (simply titled FDR parts 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5) are much more poetic. The fourth part imagines a twelve-year old who had never known another President, and they ask, “what if the sun never shifted … and you could always find it just where you left it.” But then they ask;
When night fell
Would you know it was night?
Or would you think
The sun is gone?
The Honorable George Herbert Walker Bush, III
by Gregg Reynolds
In its present version (Character Above All) it is a candlelit vigil, and a straightforward recitation of his many actions, virtuous and those much less so. This is all well and good but the second half of the twentieth century goes on like that, the guilty condemned, the virtuous exalted. It does not always follow party lines.

George H.W. Bush has received the most significant reconsideration in the past fourteen years. In 2002 he was a moderate whose universally praised war victory couldn’t save him from the criticism he received domestically.

In this version, The Bargain: Prelude To The Great Divide, Bush père is pilloried as a decent man who sold his soul to the devil (personified in the character of Lee Atwater) to achieve high office and is here accused of single-handedly ushering in the modern era of conservative dog whistles, fear-mongering and race-baiting.

Surprisingly, the most recent play that did not receive reconsideration was that for Bill Clinton. He was the sitting President when the Hall of Presidents was created, and received a fine, attractive portrait, suitable perhaps for the White House itself, and in that way much unlike the others.

Consider, for example, his predecessor, whose own portrait is actually a large poster of Saddam Hussein, with a small, George H.W. Bush action figure in box sitting in his lap.

By 2002, however, the writers of this play were able to consider Clinton's entire administration, and found him wanting. In How The Left Was Lost, Bill Clinton is manipulatively charming and all too willing to sell out progressive ideals.

What's In The Box

The evening concludes appropriately enough with an election. The audience gets to choose which play they would like to see last, either the one for him or the one for her. The company makes it clear they do not judge; we were asked to select by a show of applause which play we want to see, not who we actually want for president.

Word has it they have, in fact, performed the Trump play twice already, but the evening we were there the vote was clear, we were with Hillary. And really, after watching a company of women lay bare the magnificent excesses of all our previous, exclusively male heads of state, it only seemed appropriate.

The rap, What's In The Box, describes the frustration you might imagine a woman might feel when everyone knows everything about them, and makes up even stories about them, and yet everyone says this is the most secretive and deceitful woman who ever lived.

The company received this script during the rehearsal period, before the debates began, before grab her by the pussy and such a nasty woman. 

My thirteen year-old girl has watched and listened while the first female candidate for President of a major political party has calmly endured the most hateful and anti-woman rhetoric. My daughter is paying attention.

She has also bought an HRC T-shirt with her own money.

In early September, Hillary's "box" of secrets may have been interpreted only tangentially by its sexual connotation. In late October, it is a metaphor for all of the private and public violations women have to endure every single day, and not only from the dumpster fire at the top of Republican ticket.

Closing argument; You get my public image, bitches / but this is mine.

44 Plays For 44 Presidents continues at Cleveland Public Theatre through Saturday, October 29, 2016.

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