City Lights Theater Company invites you to rally around the flag for "44 Plays for 44 Presidents." Just in time for election season, the storied history of the American presidency, from George Washington to Barack Obama, is both celebrated and skewered in this fast-paced but uneven romp.
As the country goes through one of the most contentious presidential races ever, Chicago's Neo-Futurists theater company created this primer on the executive branch. City Lights Theater Company, one of a legion of troupes presenting the play in the run-up to Election Day, serves up this patriotic project with great energy and enthusiasm.
However, it's really more of a civics lesson than a piece of theater; unless you are quite familiar with the details of, say, the Grover Cleveland administration, some of the jokes will be lost on you. There's also a slew of factoids about everything from the Revolution to the Reconstruction that will most appeal to die-hard history buffs.
Still, it's a noble effort on the part of the City Lights troupe to try and educate theatergoers about the nation's brightest and darkest moments. At its best, it's a cross between a Ken Burns documentary and Mad Libs, meaningful but also irreverent. At its worst, it's like sitting through the American experience for dummies, with each president getting about two minutes to bask in the glory of being POTUS.
In one vignette, Cleveland dances around the White House in a toga chugging
Perhaps the most fascinating point made by the play, in which four hardworking actors (Ken Boswell, William Davidovich, Karen DeHart, Ruth E. Stein) hurtle through 44 presidencies, is just how little changes about the country over time.
Issues that we often assume to be contemporary, from the tension between the working class and the elite to the corruption of the governmental process and clashes between protesters and the police, have indeed been with us since the founding fathers. All manner of electoral tomfoolery, from voter fraud and backdoor deals to warmongering, pops up quite frequently as we work our way from the days of Ben Franklin (who is portrayed as being jealous of all the dolts who got to be president instead of him) to the age of Facebook.
And, of course, scandal is as omnipresent as baby-kissing and flag-waving.
This piece also makes the insightful point that nostalgia for the past can be a tricky matter. "44 Plays" does not gloss over the most wrenching parts of American history, from the genocide of the Native Americans to the institution of slavery (during the James Polk administration, all of the servants in the White House were replaced with slaves) and the tragedy of the Depression. In one scene, impoverished Americans band up and leave their shantytowns to rise up in protest over their lot, only to be bloodied by the authorities.
What the play lacks is enough laughter to make this cheatsheet on the American experience as amusing as it is informative. To be fair, many of these plays are so short that it's hard for the cast to leave its stamp on the material. Director Kit Wilder keeps the pace lively as the text races from the nation's birth through to modern days, but the comic timing is often off.
The actors shift from one politician to another by donning props, coats and wigs in a whirlwind of activity. Alas, all of that energy cannot entirely make up for the scattershot nature of the play itself. Many of the vignettes drag, particularly until the action ventures into the 20th century.
To be fair, it's refreshing how nonpartisan the project is in our highly polarized culture. Bill Clinton gets mocked as vigorously as Ronald Reagan and George Bush (both of them). For all its flaws, this utterly topical series of short plays sheds light on the impossible nature of being true to oneself while being the commander-in-chief.
'44 Plays for
By Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston and Karen Weinberg
Through: Oct. 21
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
Running time: 2 hours,
10 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: 408-295-4200, http://cltc.org