|Photo courtesy Theatre Pro Rata|
|The company of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents.|
Theatre Pro Rata's latest production is more than just a civics lesson disguised as a theatrical event. Sure, you'll learn something -- any information about the likes of Millard Fillmore is likely to be new -- but the overall piece works because it has strong dramatic bones.
The conceit is pretty simple, and right there in the title. Each American president gets a few minutes onstage (Cleveland gets two turns in the spotlight for his non-consecutive terms). Each short-short play, with one noticeable exception, takes a different approach to their president. Through stories, songs, and even dance, the quintet of performers bring each of the different leaders to life.
Of course, with such a short time frame, it's hard to offer much more a sketch of their personalities or presidencies. What's clear is that often times the person who puts on the spangly, red, white, and blue jacket has a deer-in-the-headlights look about them as they discover that the job is both nearly impossible and offers little rewards. That comes sharply into focus for the plays about Andrew Johnson and Lyndon B. Johnson, both of whom took office after their president was assassinated, and then oversaw a country in chaos. In each case, they're isolated in the corner of the stage, lit by a harsh bulb, having the same nightmare.
Strong men weaken and even die in office. Assassins -- more than a quarter were victims or targets -- creep around every corner. And none of them know how history will treat them -- success or failure. Often, that's more complex than on the surface. The Nixon bit highlights his accomplishments, from détente to the SALT treaty, while masked cast members ransack the house, stealing valuables -- or at least programs -- from the audience.
The show is also a workout for the quintet of actors, who have dozens of characters to play, often within seconds of the last blackout. They have great fun with it all, whether it's putting on masks as in above or wearing Teddy Roosevelt moustaches (who, by the way, comes off as well as anyone in the show; yeah national parks).
It's a sharp bit of theater that is being replicated across the country, as dozens of different companies are presenting the work this election year. As part of Pro Rata's production, there is an art exhibit with representations of all the presidents (again, two for Cleveland). The artwork is as varied as the presidents, and just adds to the depth of the evening.
IF YOU GO
44 Plays for 44 Presidents
7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through July 14; Wednesday, July 4; and Tuesday, November 6
Calvary Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall
3901 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis
For information, call 612.234.7135 or visit online
3901 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN