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Theater Review:

"43 PLAYS FOR 43 PRESIDENTS" at The Neo-Futurarium

BY LUCIA MAURO

When it comes to the Neo-Futurists, theatrical formats can be deceiving. So although their latest ensemble-generated performance piece, "43 Plays for 43 Presidents," may mimic a high-school history class or the brass-heavy pomposity of American political campaigns, it really comments on the superficiality and incompleteness of these conventional information outlets. Like the basic premise of clowning, failure engulfs the artists’ breathless attempts to cram each of our country’s 43 Chief Executives into two-minute sketches – leaving them no choice but to center on one facet of these men’s presidencies.

In this live diorama of Disneyland’s mechanized presidents’ exhibit, five writer-performers essentially point out the pitfalls of limited school projects that portray leaders as wax figures with a catchy political platform and a hallowed place in those hefty books of famous quotes. Conceived by ensemble member Andy Bayiates, "43 Plays for 43 Presidents" is framed by the requisite slide projections of each Commander in Chief.

Set designers John Randle, Greg Allen and Connor Kalista subtly twist familiar Manifest Destiny cliches. A blackboard and shelves seem to box in the gravity of history. Vintage lamps, journals, cigars, a Bowie knife and other familiar memorabilia surround a giant scale weighed down with building blocks representing the Union and the Confederacy – which eventually erupt and implode at the same time.

Each of the five actors – Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo, Chloe Johnston and Karen Weinberg – employs the clever transitional device of fighting over an Uncle Sam-style coat. The one who succeeds in slipping into this flashy and gaudy piece of cloth enacts an original performance sequence about that particular president – often augmented by a flashing "direct quote" sign, which serves as a sort of scolding halo.

Hovering above this admonitory show are the specters of slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans, highlighted by Bayiates’ quietly telling musical selections. So "43 Plays for 43 Presidents" sports a subliminal side. Beneath all the rah-rah flag-waving and hand-shaking boils a monstrous cauldron of opportunism and hypocrisy. And it isn’t until a few days after one views this work that the Neo-Futurists’ kitschy vignettes achieve as painfully numbing an effect by revealing the hopelessness of political power plays as the brainwashing propaganda being belted out on most news outlets across the country.

That said, "43 Plays for 43 Presidents" does not appear to lambaste every U.S. leader. But it does remind us of the injustices glossed over in the name of folk heroes and society’s need to look to an heroic figure for answers.

While the work achieves greater ingenuity and layering from George Washington to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it clicks into shallow fast-forward mode when tackling more contemporary leaders, like Gerald R. Ford (reduced to pratfalls) and Bill Clinton (reduced to "how the Left was lost"). The latter presidents are accompanied by the usual pop tunes of their day.

Some moments are bound to be more poignant than others. Standouts include a shy Thomas Jefferson getting roasted by a Borsht Belt-style Benjamin Franklin; a jug-and-washboard tune about Andrew Jackson’s unabashed cruelty; Indian fighter John Tyler rabidly stabbing red balloons; the heartwrenching story of Franklin Pierce’s ceaseless ambitions, which cost him the life of his young son; Abraham Lincoln’s long history of dealing with death; Ulysses S. Grant’s celebrity tour; William Howard Taft’s infantile whining sequence over wanting to be a Supreme Court Justice; an epic radio address on F.D.R.’s accomplishments; and a video-taped interview of people’s impressions of John F. Kennedy.

The cast nimbly moves through our country’s chronology in a Cliff Note’s fashion that, in its sparseness, has the capacity to reveal an astonishing number of shams at the same time it reminds us of our First Amendment rights. Genevra Gallo delivers a particularly steely performance, with her fellow cast members adding a certain slapstick vulnerability to their characters’ requisite self-importance.

In the end, we’re certainly more aware of our country’s shortcomings, together with its enormous accomplishments in such a short period of time. We’re left pondering not only the young age of our Super-Power nation but also the unrealistic expectations we place on our presidents. After all, after snatching that red-white-and-blue coat from their opponents, these men ultimately appear quite uncomfortable in their bulky presidential threads.•

The Neo-Futurists’ production of "43 Plays for 43 Presidents" runs through March 9 at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland. Tickets: $8-$12. There will be a special performance on Presidents’ Day, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m., in conjunction with the unveiling of the troupe’s latest presidential portrait of George W. Bush by Oli Watt in The Neo-Futurists’ Hall of Presidents. Call 773-275-5255 or log onto www.neofuturists.org.


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