When you're a kid, presidents seem distant and heroic. Godlike, even. Then you grow up and realize they're just people, as flawed as anyone else. The Forward Theater Company staging of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, the opener for its fourth season, takes that notion to the hilt. Running through Sunday, October 7 at the Overture Center Playhouse, it's an irreverent romp through the lives of those who've occupied the Oval Office.
Created by Chicago's Neo-Futurists, 44 Plays is devised as short vignettes that dash through the presidents' legacies in chronological order. This structure keeps the performance hopping but makes it harder to latch onto. During the Millard Fillmore scene, three members of the five-person cast sit eating bread, literally stuffing their faces, while a fourth grins maniacally in the background. Random facts about Fillmore are recited -- for example, that he was the last Whig to be president.
Other presidents are presented in song, such as a ukulele ditty about "Silent Cal" Coolidge and a Nixon number featuring Watergate burglars as a chorus of backup singers. James Madison is covered wordlessly, as one of the performers cycles through a series of silent-movie title cards.
Under the direction of Forward artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, 44 Plays is a bit of a departure from the company's previous productions. While not a staid company by any means -- Forward's choice of material has generally been terrific and showcased a lot of new work -- Forward has staged productions in which basics like character development and plot have grounded things. 44 Plays reveals a more comedic, experimental side of Forward.
The five-actor ensemble handles rapid shifts in style and tone with aplomb. Georgina McKee, who previously appeared in the company's A Thousand Words, has a stage presence that is somehow both commanding and understated, and a fine singing voice to boot. Milwaukee-based, Juilliard-trained Matt Daniels is also an excellent singer. Fellow Milwaukeean Jonathan West is a full-bore physical comedian. Completing the cast are Marcella Kearns, who also serves as dramaturg, and UW theater professor Patrick Sims.
I found the later presidents more absorbing, but that's probably because I had more knowledge about them going in. The sound of FDR's voice intoning "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" is still deeply stirring, and the Kennedy assassination is handled in a poignant and locally relevant way.
Joe Cerqua's sound design plays a key role by smoothing the transitions between disparate scenes. He cleverly uses familiar tunes like "The Star-Spangled Banner" to transition from harpsichord to electric guitar to '80s synths as time progresses. Charles J. Trieloff II's set design, with its huge presidential seal on the floor, calls to mind the theatrics of political conventions, with a whiff of The Colbert Report's set.
Simply put, there's a lot going on here, and not all of it gels. But underneath the show's anarchic side is earnestness. Forward urges us to remember that the people we elect to our highest office are simply our fellow citizens. Democracy is us, and forever a work in progress.
If you go, don't miss the fun accompanying exhibition in the Playhouse lobby, curated by David Wells. It features the work of local artists depicting all 44 presidents in a variety of media. Artists randomly chose which artist to portray, which produced a lot of inventive results.