POTUS, Fichandler Theatre, Arena Stage, Washington, DC
Kelly McAndrew, Megan Hill, Sarah-Anne Martinez, Natalya Lynette Rathnam, Felicia Curry, Yesenia Iglesias, and Naomi Jacobson in POTUS at Arena Stage. Photo by Kian McKellar.
The program for POTUS: or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are
Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive by Selina Fillinger, currently
on-stage at Arena Stage’s Fichandler Theatre (through November 12), describes
the play’s setting as:
The White House.
Perhaps not the current
administration, exactly – but broad strokes of past presidents, combined with
stress diagrams of future ones.
And if we’re being honest, an
amalgamation of them all…
How does someone satirize contemporary politics when reality
often stretches the imagination? How can a playwright create a situation that
is even more absurd and bizarre than those we’ve lived through in the past 25
years or so and/or are currently experiencing? In retrospect, some of the plot
twists that seemed unthinkable on recent series such as “Veep” and “House of
Cards” feel almost ordinary by comparison.
If I go into too much detail describing the events of POTUS
(and I’ll use that one acronym rather than adding the 13 additional words), it
might give away unforeseen occurrences in the play which should be discovered
as the play unfolds. Suffice it to say that the president (never seen) has,
during a meeting with members of the press, used an unprintable word to
describe the first lady – technically he did not call her by that name, but
said that she had that kind of a morning. Now it is up to the president’s inner
circle to clean up the mess he has made. And thus, they proceed even though
their best efforts lead to further complications. (Did we not learn from
Watergate that a cover-up only worsens an inappropriate action?)
What we see is a series of vignettes, scenes (some very
short) depicting the seven ladies whose names are unimportant, but whose
relationships to the president are: Harriet, his chief of staff, who
seems to be the “brains” behind the administration; Jean, his press secretary,
always trying to “spin” whatever happens; Stephanie, his secretary, trying to
assert herself and take up more space; Margaret, his wife (the first lady), who
serves as his surrogate when necessary but has her own opinions; Chris, a
journalist, caught in the day’s events because she happens to be profiling the first
lady; Dusty, his “dalliance,” an extra-marital partner he has tried to hide;
and his sister Bernadette, who has broken out of prison in hopes of obtaining a
presidential pardon. Bit by bit, we create a rather complete vision of the president,
the sun around which their planets orbit. We begin to understand each of their
relationships to him but also the intricate interrelationships and
entanglements the seven women have among themselves as revelations are made.
Kelly McAndrew, Felicia Curry, Sarah-Anne Martinez, Natalya Lynette Rathnam, and Naomi Jacobson in POTUS at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.
The play’s events are outrageous – or would have been considered to be, maybe 20 years ago – and the degree of outrageousness increases exponentially as the play continues. Playwright Selina Fillinger writes smart, snappy, incisive dialogue with characters spouting more words per minute than in the works of most other playwrights. The cast is up to the task and never misses a beat. Margot Bordelon directs with precision and timing, especially challenging on Arena’s large stage with few furnishings.
Playwright Fillinger has created memorable, distinctive characters, brought to life by this talented cast, attacking their roles with ferocity. As chief of staff (Harriet), Naomi Jacobson conveys a sense of authority that would be well-suited to the presidency and not just her current role. We see that this character has been putting out fires and cleaning up messes for her current boss for years. Felicia Curry (Margaret) is an authoritative and business-like, gun-brandishing first lady who speaks of “our” (rather than his) administration with confidence, but who also shows off some mean taekwondo moves. (Why isn’t either one of them president instead of him?) Megan Hill demonstrates a flair for physical comedy, providing hysterical moments as the president’s secretary, Stephanie, who goes on a bizarre “trip” after ingesting some mind-altering substances. Yesenia Iglesias (Chris) is perhaps the most grounded of the characters as the journalist/outsider who happens to be at the White House to write a profile of the first lady when these events unfold. Hers is the character with the least personal connection to the president, which might make her the most relatable character. Sarah-Anne Martinez’s Dusty, described as “his dalliance,” appears at first to be a rather air-headed cheerleader type, but shows her tenacity when needed. And Kelly McAndrew as Bernadette, the president’s sister, appears last and with the most unexpected backstory of all.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I went on a White House tour
the day before I saw POTUS, so I had a heightened appreciation for Reid
Thompson’s set design. Above the stage hangs a plexiglass recreation of the
White House’s architecture, which moves and is enhanced at times by the
lighting design by Marika Kent. Onto the stage is projected a stylized version
of the seal of the United States. Additional settings are suggested by elements
brought in by the crew or cast, dropped from the fly space, or brought up from
below. Furniture is minimal and items are often see-through in order to
facilitate the theatre-in-the-round setting.
The set of POTUS designed by Reid Thompson at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Costume designer Ivania Stack has found an appropriate
“signature” look for each of the characters, with some presenting more than one
side of the character – specifically Margaret (the first lady) with a pant-suit
look (where have we seen that before?) as well as something far more glamorous
and Bernadette (his sister) somehow stripping away the layers of an onion to
reveal her true self.
DC is the natural environment for this play, which I hope will
draw large audiences. DC audiences “know” these characters and their situations
better than other audiences. As stated in the “setting” description of the
play, some will undoubtedly read certain aspects of current or recent administrations
in the production.
On my White House tour, I noted this quote from John Adams, our
second president and the first to occupy the nation’s most famous address, engraved
into the mantle of a fireplace in the State Dining Room:
I pray Heaven to bestow the best of
blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but
honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.
I’m afraid we have not always met the standard requested in
the second line, but I certainly subscribe to the first one.
In fact, Arena Stage’s production of POTUS demonstrates
that, as its subtitle suggests, behind every [including this not-so-great]
dumbass are seven women trying [desperately and hilariously] to keep him alive.
Are they successful? You will have to see the production to find out. I’m not
Kelly McAndrew, Natalya Lynette Rathnam, Yesenia Iglesias, Sarah-Anne Martinez, and Felicia Curry in POTUS at Arena Stage. Photo by Kian McKellar.