Election 2012 / Mosaic / Reviews / Theater / November 7, 2012

How to decipher history with ’44 Plays’

The cast of ‘44 Plays 44 Presidents’ dances around freshman Jacob Clay during the dress rehearsal of ‘44 Plays 44 Presidents’ in Studio Theatre Friday, Nov. 2. (Jessica Couvillier/TKS)

At the beginning of the second act of “44 Plays for 44 Presidents,” a sketch about former President Benjamin Harrison is suddenly interrupted. Up until this point, freshman Hollie Dyer has been throwing out information on Harrison, with freshman Jacob Clay becoming increasingly frustrated with what he views as a “disingenuous” portrayal of Harrison’s personality.

“So you’re just going to tell them half the story?” Clay asks.

“No,” corrects Dyer. “Just the short version.”

“44 Plays” is indeed the short version of U.S. history. With 44 presidencies crammed into 120 minutes, some presidents get little more than a 45-second mention. To cram a four-year term or longer into a few minutes is to lose some detail. And for junior director Alyssa Gill, that’s exactly the point.

“This show is really about giving you one person’s perspective or a group of people’s perspective and knowing that you don’t have the whole story,” she said. “It’s important … to not just take what we’re giving you, but to become informed on your own.”

If the goal of the play was to only tell part of the story, it did that well. Those unfamiliar with the details of the presidencies of Chester Alan Arthur, James Garfield or William McKinley certainly missed out on some important historical context that would have lent more meaning to their sections. Yet there was always just enough information to make the sketches intriguing. Why, for instance, was Grover Cleveland such a lady’s man? Why was Buchanan so happy to leave office? And just why was Calvin Coolidge so quiet?

There were certainly times when the fast-paced format became unwieldy, and it took a few presidents for the actors to hit their stride. At the end of the show, the stage was a mess of popped balloons, cracked Easter eggs, cardboard posters and confetti — a result of the frequent use of small props to illustrate larger points. The play itself includes over 150 characters and only six actors, who must switch roles every few minutes. This chaos, though, mirrors the American political scene, as the actors illustrate through the conflicts faced by the presidents. Often, multiple voices competed to be heard with actors talking over one another, each fighting to make his or her version of the narrative the most prominent.

Yet somehow, the play comes together, thanks to an extremely versatile group of actors. In only a few scenes, sophomore Kathleen Gullion went from portraying a comedic hunter out to get balloons scattered on the floor to a president haunted by his nightmares. Clay switched from a somber Lincoln to a philandering Cleveland to a professorial Wilson just as quickly. The show had its hiccups, with props and scenery that wouldn’t quite cooperate and occasional stumbles in lines, but the most likely reason for a slip-up — juggling so much information in so little time — proved not to be a problem.

And this may be because, ultimately, the responsibility for juggling rests with the viewer, not the actors. The play does not disguise its bias against certain presidents, nor does it apologize for favoring others. But thanks to having six actors playing 150 roles and the fast pacing, the incomplete nature of the information presented is immediately apparent. “44 Plays” will not answer all of your questions about the presidents; in fact, you will likely leave the show with more. But it does shine light on one very important thing: history is complicated, as is the presidency, and the short version is only a starting point.

Anna Meier

Tags:  44 plays for 44 presidents alyssa gill american history Election 2012 history presidents Studio Theatre

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