Review: City Lights’ ’44 Presidents’ skewers, informs

Karen DeHart, Bill Davidovich and Ruth E. Stein take turns playing the 44 Commanders-in-Chief in “44 Plays for 44 Presidents” at City Lights Theater Company. (Photo by Kit Wilder)

There were lots of great facts in City Lights’ Theater Company’s production of “44 Plays for 44 Presidents.” Some of my favorites:

–          The “Baby Ruth” candy bar was named after Grover Cleveland’s daughter.
–          Baby Ruth’s taste even better when they are free.
–          Woodrow Wilson created daylight savings time to save fuel.
–          Millard Fillmore sucked at reading.
–          Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, the first time an African-American enjoyed that honor.
There were many other nuggets from the production, which featured a series of “plays” that served as highlights and lowlights of the respective presidents and their said tenure.
Chicago’s Neo-Futurists theatre company, who is best known in the Windy City by their production of  “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,” which is a series of 30 short plays performed in 60 minutes, originally created the show. While some of the plays were not terribly involved, glossing over significant details and sometimes playing as a popular presidential culture hit parade, there were plenty of extremely poignant moments.
What was not glossed over were quite a few of the ugliest moments in our nation’s history. Andrew Johnson’s presidency was marred with the unflinching images of lynchings and floggings.  There were Japanese internment camps which took some of the most successful Americans and treated them as prisoners based on the shape of their eyes. The decimation of the American Indian. James K. Polk’s decision to replace all White House workers with slaves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaking of “a day which will live in infamy.” Or a dazzling fugue which spelled out numerous tragedies that befell Abraham Lincoln.
Not every play was all that interesting, which is not uncommon in the “30 in 60” show either. Some of it moved along a bit slowly. But even though there were forgettable moments, in a show that featured 44 plays, the overall batting average was still fairly solid.
The cast of Ken Boswell, Bill Davidovich, Karen DeHart and Ruth E. Stein used Kit Wilder’s smooth direction to move throughout the stage, simply grabbing a coat when they played whichever president was approaching. Ron Gasparinetti’s ingenious set created an oval office feel with a video board that sat in the stars of the American flag.
In terms of modern events, each of the last five presidents and presidential candidates ran into issues that were thorns in their sides. Whether it was democratic candidate Michael Dukakis and the issue of Willie Horton, George Bush’s imploring the country to read his lips, or Ronald Reagan’s ties to Oliver North, the play took a much more pragmatic approach to viewing these folks through a specific prism. More often than not, the plays struck a certain tone that simply shared information and facts, which worked very well. It was not necessarily important for the playwrights to tell me how to feel. What was most effective was when relevant information is shared.
Very clearly, more details were shared with some of the more recent leaders. It is always funny to see Bill Clinton and his southern charm, top teeth on the bottom lip and the thumb slightly out of the fingers. It was also humorous to see George W. Bush and his challenge with the English language, using ditties such as “nucular,” “misunderestimated” or “subliminable.”
Yet, I was very curious as to see how the play would handle our current president. With the advent of the 24 hour news networks and the internet, it has become much easier to choose news of your liking. Hate Barack Obama? Easy to find other websites or entire news corporations to agree with you.
Yet, in a simple and poignant play, the message was very simple.
When I was young, I believed that history was the most useless waste of time in academia. Yet, as time went on and maturity kicked in (which might be debatable for those who know me, but I digress), I learned to appreciate and revere the office of the presidency. And the most important piece of that is quite simply, being president is a very difficult job. It always has been and always will be. It ages a person at a rapid fire pace, and in modern times, a president can’t say the sky is blue without half the country ridiculing that assessment.
The intentions of each of our presidents may be noble, might be questioned, and their philosophies could be faulty. But the office of the president belongs to the nation.
One of the most poignant of all the moments was at the end of the show, when the cast passed out voting forms. What this shows is that this process and the presidency is inherently American. And with that comes moments of extreme ugliness and visceral beauty.
City Lights Theater Company presents “44 Plays for 44 Presidents”
By Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnston and Karen Weinberg
Directed by Kit Wilder
Stars 3.5/5
The word: A nice hunk of entertaining moments do plenty to revere and skewer the nation’s highest office.
Through Oct. 21st
Tickets range from $16.95 – $39.95
City Lights Theater
529 South Second St., San Jose, CA
For tickets, call (408) 295-4200 or visit the City Lights official website.

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