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Forward’s 44 Plays Offers Presidential Fun

September 24, 2012

Who knew Warren G. Harding was considered the worst American president ever? Who knew much of anything about Warren G. Harding?

American history scholars notwithstanding, just about everyone can benefit from the historical nuggets in “44 Plays for 44 Presidents,” this season’s inaugural offering from Madison’s Forward Theater. But it’s really the inventive theatricality of the work, originally developed by Chicago’s Neo-Futurists that will command and capture the audience’s attention.

The Neo-Futurists, an experimental theater troupe founded in 1988 and based on the beliefs of the Italian Futurist movement of the early 20th Century and its commitment to the aesthetics of honesty, speed and brevity, created the play’s first version in 2002 as “43 Plays for 43 Presidents.” Later expanded to include Barack Obama, the almost three-hour production treats all the country’s chief executives in 90-second to five-minute snippets presented in historical order.

UW-Theatre professor Patrick Sims leads a talented five-member cast that includes Milwaukee actors Matt Daniels, Marcella Kearns, Madison native Georgina McKee and Jonathan West. Each takes a turn at portraying several presidents, donning the presidential coat and encapsulating essential elements of the administration.

The actors don’t attempt to become the presidents – what would an impersonation of Franklin Pierce look like anyway? – but instead communicate key characteristics both good and bad, some of which common history has chosen to conveniently forget. The non-stop action occasionally bogs down during sequences devoted to less familiar presidents (Mr. Pierce, for example), but becomes razor-sharp in its observations and satire for those with whom many of us have shared our lives.

The skits run from vaudeville to pop tunes and other creative outlets. West, as Benjamin Franklin, conducts a Friar’s Club-style roast of Daniels as Thomas Jefferson, while McKee does a torch song devoted to Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge. Things just get more inventive from there.

Self-confessed political junkie Jennifer Uphoff-Gray, Forward’s artistic director who also directed the production, takes the concept even further by pairing her play with an art installation devoted to past presidents and a “get out and vote” message that includes the distribution of actual voter registration forms at the end of the production.

Forward, which enters its fourth season this year and first year as an Overture Center resident company, is taking it to the seats with the political message behind “44 Plays.” The success of this production will propel the company even further forward in bringing greater vitality to local theater.

Go see the play, then remember to vote in November. It’s all part of the same experience.

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