POTUS: Or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
A President's Improprieties Trigger a Zany Cavalcade of Events
By: Victor Cordell - Sep 22, 2023
The subtitle of this play “Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” suggests where it’s going. But if you think that it may simply be misandristic, that wouldn’t be correct. Given the crazy antics of these females who are close to the president, you could just as easily add the word dumbass in front of the word women. In any case, the result is “POTUS,” a farce that had Berkeley Rep’s opening night audience laughing with glee from start to finish.
A never-seen president possesses the worst traits from a composite of recent U.S. commanders-in-chief, and the action centers on the women trying to create cover for him. Early on, the omnium gatherum is comprised of the First Lady, three vital staff members, and a journalist, who are later joined by the president’s sister and what the play’s program calls “his dalliance.”
The triggering event is that president publicly referred to the First Lady as “cunty” (has anyone heard of that derivative?). His Chief of Staff Harriet (played by Deidre Lovejoy) blithely seeks to dismiss it while Press Secretary Jean (Kim Blanck) scrambles to put a spin on the miscue, as she’ll have to deal with the press. Meanwhile, all the women get into clashes and reveal their own wacko traits.
For instance, First Lady, Margaret (Stephanie Pope Lofgren), wants to be perceived as earthy, so she wears weird white, high-heeled Crocs that look stupid, especially with her dressy dresses. Yet, she insists that all of her activities and accomplishments be repeatedly acknowledged publicly. The president’s sister, Bernadette (Allison Guinn), is a goth who was a couple with Jean - that is, before Bernadette went to prison. She is now on a short-fuse release to seek a pardon from her brother.
An incident that won’t be mentioned occurs at the end of Act 1, and women have to create cover for themselves. However, the president’s secretary, Stephanie (Susan Lynskey), inadvertently swallows a psychotropic drug and frantically galivants in a bikini, making postures like a ninja warrior and asking where the ground is. And while the arrival of squeaky-voiced dalliance Dusty (Stephanie Styles) is unwelcomed, the group feels she will be easily dismissed, until they find that she won’t be easily dismissed.
Since the play’s narrative bursts with ridiculous situations that are not intended to be realistic, it gives rise to overwrought performances, full of shrieking, sarcasm, and silliness. Nonetheless, a number of meaningful social and political issues surface. The international political implications and the domino effect of the president’s crass “cunty” statement to a Bahraini contingent is discussed. Presidents being tagged by the actions of their relatives arises. The issue of the right of nursing mothers to express milk plays large as the journalist, Chris (Dominique Toney), seeks places in the White House to pump her breasts. Abortion even takes the stage. References to contemporary tropes like “the real brains in the White House” and “those around him will go down, but not POTUS” also appear.
Director Annie Tippe’s production is top flight. Andrew Boyce’s scenic design skillfully mimics the White House. Yi Zhao’s lighting sparkles both in its varied illuminations and its decorative effect, from large scale Broadway bulbs for a singing performance by Dusty to picture lights above White House paintings. Acting fulfills the demands of the roles. The play can also be commended as one with an all-female cast that doesn’t seem like it is forced into that box. It is a true ensemble, and I wouldn’t even have a guess which part had the most lines or which the fewest.
One philosophy of play criticism says that its purpose is to prevent people from going to an unworthy play. But that notion doesn’t hold up well under examination. When a play like this is popular with the audience but the critic dislikes it, the critic speaking in his/her own voice may dissuade people from going to something they would enjoy.
Now for the Minority Report. So, the above review of “POTUS” is an accurate reflection that includes production elements that I appreciated plus objective descriptions which might be written by someone who actually enjoyed the play. But farce tends to split audiences like few other genres. Though I’ve enjoyed locally produced farces such as Corneille’s “The Liar,” “Noises Off,” and “One Man, Two Guvnors,” this one does not work for me. Several other colleagues and acquaintances felt the same way, though one couple enjoyed it a lot for what it was.
I know there are alternate interpretations to acting the parts, but I wouldn’t fault the acting. An unabated string of wise-cracking one-liners demands hyperenergetic overacting, which the actors deliver. But the comedy is largely sophomoric, sometimes reduced to potty humor, and there is little pause to allow for lull and climax – no buildup of tension or involvement.
Finally, and noting that I’m no prude when it comes to language or content, I didn’t find the foul language offensive, but excessive and ultimately distracting. It’s almost as if the playwright is more intent on showing that she can use the crassest obscenities rather than make them work. How many times do female characters need to say “Get off my dick” before it wears out? And while I have understood that women are very offended at the use of the word cunt, it is used liberally by this female playwright, though usually in the adjectival variation. From my perspective, the script would work better with minor adjustments.
Getting back to philosophies of criticism, I often feel it is more important for a critic to disclose information that acts as guidance as to what kind of theatergoer is likely to like or likely to dislike a particular production. Hopefully, that has come across.
“POTUS: Or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” written by Selina Fillinger and produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, plays on its stage at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through October 22, 2023.