Theater has always been a political medium, and never more so than in a presidential election year. Madison’s Forward Theater plans to increase the political quotient this month by opening its 2012-2013 season with “44 Plays for 44 Presidents.” The production debuts Sept. 20 at The Playhouse at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.
What makes “44 Plays” particularly appealing, in addition to its proximity to the November election, is its structure. The original version – “43 Plays for 43 Presidents” – was created in 2002 by members of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, an experimental theater troupe based on the Italian Futurist movement of the early 20th century, which was committed to the aesthetics of honesty, speed and brevity.
The play consists of two-minute vignettes about the life of every American president, from George Washington through Barack Obama, performed by a revolving cast of five actors. The vignettes attempt to highlight the mistakes and successes of the chief executive while he was in office.
The original version of the play was written and produced by now-former Neo-Futurists Andrew Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloë Johnston and Karen Weinberg. The quintet split from the group to form this year’s Plays for Presidents Festival. Their mission is to inspire 44 separate productions of “44 Plays for 44 Presidents” across the country in the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election.
of clips from all 44 productions. Forward Theater will film the George W. Bush play as its contribution to the project, Gray says. (Visit playsforpresidents.com for more information.)
“One of the things that I really appreciate is about ‘44 Plays’ is the non-partisan take on politics,” says Forward artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, who also is directing the production. “It gets everyone talking together about our civic responsibilities and sends them out the door to vote.”
Beginning with the almost Eden-like perfection of Washington’s presidency, the scenes shift frequently between the comic and the tragic, Gray says. Benjamin Franklin gives Thomas Jefferson a Borscht Belt-style roast, and the play takes a frank look at William Henry Harrison’s life as an “Indian slayer,” and later the grim onset of the Civil War.
Act II begins the 20th century with the assassination of William McKinley, moves through a Richard Nixon-praising dance number and a George Bush, Sr., mini-musical about dirty campaigning before arriving at a polarized America in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama segments.
“As a director, I love the theatricality and form of the work,” Gray says. “There’s singing, dancing, verse, audience interaction, vaudeville-style routines and elements of farce. It’s something we really haven’t done before.”
A self-described “political nerd,” Gray admits to owning action figures of each president as a child. She hopes the production will encourage audiences “to consider their role in shaping the history they’ve just witnessed, as they are left to ponder where the presidency has gone since its fall from paradise, and where it will go next.”
Although the plays are historically accurate, “the presidents are presented as heightened versions of themselves,” Gray says. “Everything in the show is based in history, and there are many portions of the plays that use direct quotes from the leaders being showcased, so this is not fiction. At the same time, it’s a lot more entertaining than reading textbooks.”
Forward’s five-member cast, headed by UW-Madison theater professor Patrick Sims, includes Milwaukee actors Matt Daniels, Marcella Kearns, Georgina McKee and Jonathan West.
“I hope that people take away the message that presidents are human beings who, without exception, all did what they thought was right,” Gray says. “Now, they may have been misguided or at odds with most of the American people, but it’s our job to be informed, engaged, responsive – and not just at election time, but year round. It’s our job as a populace to be educated as we vote.”
This production seems to offer a good start in getting this year’s election-year initiative underway.
Forward Theater’s 2012-13 Season at a Glance
“44 Plays for 44 Presidents” – Sept. 20 – Oct. 7
“Soul Food Monologue Festival” – Nov. 9 – 11
“Collected Stories” – Jan. 17 – Feb. 3
Produced in collaboration with the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
“Good People” – April 4 – 21
For more information, visit: forwardtheater.com.