“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw the light was good, and he separated light from the darkness. He called the light the United States of America, and the darkness the British Empire.”
Throughout the country, this line is recited to crowds of theater lovers and United States history buffs alike. While the line was not heard in a classroom this weekend, Forward Theater Company’s “44 Plays for 44 Presidents” is nonetheless perhaps one of the most educational and entertaining performances to be seen at the Overture Center for the Arts this year.
First created by the Neo-Futurists of Chicago, “44 Plays” is a two-hour long, postmodern-style theatrical production made up of brief, biographical and decidedly non-partisan scenes emphasizing defining moments of our nation’s presidencies, from George Washington to Barack Obama.
Unlike a history textbook, “44 Plays” makes little use of the traditionally formal narrative used when describing the presidents. Following the postmodern aesthetic of the Neo-Futurists, the performers who portray them make no effort to imitate any of the presidents visually and never attempt to suspend the audience’s disbelief, aiming instead for an interaction between the cast and the audience.
The cast’s five performers range from a variety of backgrounds, but successfully imitate the character of each president they’re assigned. Audience members watch actors Marcy Kearns, Patrick Sims, Matt Daniels, Georgina McKee and Johnathan West alternately perform the presidential roles and bring a different, but reminiscent portraiture of the men who held the title of Commander-in-Chief.
One of the performers, Marcy Kearns, clarified rather than make the attempt to convey a personality they could never perfectly replicate, she and the other performers “play as ourselves, using the text and the quotes of the play” and keeping in mind appropriate historical context. History buffs who are familiar with the personality and the history of Teddy Roosevelt will be delightfully unsurprised by his plural representation onstage.
In each of the performances, the accomplishments, frustrations, pursuits and failures of each presidency are rendered emotionally relevant to the audience. No matter your political affiliation (or lack thereof), when you look at the lives of the presidents, says Patrick Sims, “they only tried to do what they thought was right.” That being said, several of the performers admitted that bringing non-partisanship into each of their roles was one of the most difficult aspects of creating the show. “We were very conscious about it,” Matt Daniels said.
Despite the play’s light-heartedness and humor, there are plenty of more serious themes that find their way on stage. Touching upon issues of power, family, sovereignty, poetic justice, fate and reconciliation, the struggle of the presidents in many ways reflects the struggles of the contemporary citizens of both their respective eras and of today, and through the course of the play, it becomes very evident history continues to repeat and reflect itself. In the end, perhaps the most poignant theme featured is the very paradox of the seat of the presidency — that a single, fallible human being is entrusted to a throne befitting of a god.
When taken in full, “44 Plays for 44 Presidents” is an entertaining history lesson, emotionally engaging and expertly performed, and well worth the visit by anyone — be they history enthusiast or a college student with a free night. It doesn’t matter if you’re a citizen, student, visitor or resident, this play was written for all of us.
“44 Plays for 44 Presidents” is being performed at The Overture Center through October 7. Tickets are $25, with student rush tickets available one hour before showtime for $15 with a valid Student ID. For more information visit overturecenter.com/production/44-plays-for-44-presidents