Most people in the theater world know Mark Collins as a critic — a temperate, thoughtful fellow, almost self-effacing. So it comes as a bit of a shock to see him swaggering around the stage as a boastful Ben Franklin, line dancing, or transforming into a huge, blubbery baby and getting fed spoonful after spoonful of applesauce. Not to mention taking a number of skidding, sliding, arm-spinning, leg-waving topples as Gerald Ford that shake the stage and would make Chevy Chase jealous. But these are only some of the personae that Collins takes on in the course of 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, a play created by a Chicago group called the Neo-Futurists in 2001 that's frequently revived around the country and is currently being presented in Boulder by Square Product Theatre Company.
With most of us having lost patience with the deluge of election mailers, commercials and pundit commentary — all of it misleading and almost none of it addressing anything we really care about — and retreated to armchairs, where we settle in for grim evenings of Hoarders or Frasier reruns in sheer self-defense, I don't need to remind you that a sharp, incisive take on the American presidency is exactly the tonic we need at this moment. And 44 Plays comes so close.
It's a bright and stimulating evening, but it doesn't quite pull off what the authors intend: to make us think about the meaning of the American presidency, remind us of patterns tracing through our history, and help us understand the way the stories of our nation get woven over time. Five actors — two men and three women — play all the parts. The style is presentational, chipper and sly. The presidency is represented by a star-spangled red, white and blue coat, usually (but not always) assumed by the actor playing the president, and each presidency gets a small theater piece — narrative, quasi-realistic, representational, absurd. Actual quotes, whether by presidents or other commentators, are flashed in lights, and there's a lot of real information transmitted. You get a fragmented sense of the tide of history — the murder and displacement of Native Americans by one president after another; when the Alien and Sedition Acts first came into being and how they were eventually used; just how deep-rooted the big government-social welfare/small government-privatization debate is in our body politic; the peculiar foibles of some of our presidents. As assassinations roll by, you start wondering if violence is in our very DNA.
But 44 Plays also reminds us of the accomplishments of some of the presidents: the national parks, support for the poor and the powerless — a thin, wavering thread that runs quietly through American politics — and how Theodore Roosevelt created the Food and Drug Administration following the furor caused by Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, which exposed the filth and misery of the cattle industry (and is way overdue for renewed discussion). There are a few pieces that resonate emotionally. Warren G. Harding is presented as a sad figure, defined by his own comment: "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here." Jimmy Carter, by contrast, is shown as mocked during his presidency and humiliatingly defeated, only to be celebrated in retirement for his works of decency, charity and political significance.
The weaknesses are inherent to the form. We get fragments and partial views, important presidents defined by a single quirk or action. I had trouble catching many of the inferences, especially in the first act, and although by the second — and the twentieth century — I'd found my footing, I wondered if the younger people in the audience understood much about Reagan's role in Iran-Contra, or knew why there was a hooded guy being continually manhandled during this segment.
I must admit that it made me happy to see a fellow critic give a knockout performance: Taking the stage with an authority I'd never have suspected of the quiet fellow sitting at all those openings a few rows away from me, Collins provided some of the evening's funniest moments. And his performance was balanced by that of the very versatile Michelle Moore, whose warmly empathetic turn as Franklin Pierce's wife brought a moment of genuine pathos to the proceedings.