44 Plays for 44 Presidents

The ArtsCenter
Through Oct. 7

Just in time for election season, The ArtsCenter in Carrboro has mounted the fun and fast-paced 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, a collection of staged shorts concerning history, politics and the U.S. executive branch.

Beginning with George Washington, 44 Plays addresses the presidents in succession, each getting three or four minutes of attention from the very busy five-person cast. Most scenes have some sort of comic or satirical element, but the stylistic range is all over the map. The legacy of a given president might be addressed in the manner of a quiz show or silent film, vaudevillian revue or sober monologue.

Some of the funnier bits include a Borscht Belt-style roast of Thomas Jefferson (by Ben Franklin, no less) and an exuberant musical tribute to Nixon (“We Love Dick!”). On the dark side are tributes to Lincoln and JFK, and a particularly compelling scene in which Benjamin Harrison slaughters Native Americans by stabbing red balloons with a knife.

Funny or dramatic, the vignettes come in such rapid succession that 44 Plays has an inherent problem with tonal consistency. The large audience at last Saturday’s show often seemed unsure when and whether to laugh. And some bits are simply incomprehensible, unless you’re familiar with Martin van Buren’s federal treasury policy, or whatever.

But the flat notes are easy to forgive when you begin to appreciate the amazing technical proficiency of the cast and crew. The rear of the stage is occupied by four cabinets filled with costumes and props, which the five performers bring into and out of scenes at a dizzying pace: hats, guns, lamps, chalkboards, spanking paddles, fake mustaches and so on.

Meanwhile, the equally busy tech crew is firing off relentless lighting and sound effects, along with images, scrolling text and film clips on a central projection screen. There’s a tumbling velocity to the production that’s thrilling.

The ensemble cast manages it all with aplomb and the occasional ad-libbed aside, giving 44 Plays the energy and verve of an improv show. This is a true ensemble and everyone gets several dozen moments to shine. I particularly liked Ros Schwartz’s spitfire energy, Michael Brocki’s gravity in the heavier bits and Derrick Ivey’s alarmingly accurate Jimmy Carter impersonation.

The thesis of 44 Plays is more or less stated in the midst of the Benjamin Harrison sequence, after the intermission. It’s about how history is written and how the legacy of our country is communicated in the story of the presidents. The play encourages us to think about what we know and what we think we know. Too bad the artfully posed questions are undercut at the end with some pedantic rock-the-vote nonsense. 44 Plays didn’t make me want to get to the polls, but it did make me want to read up on some of these jokers.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Young meets old.”