Regional Reviews: Chicago
Fillinger's play never shows the titular POTUS, but that's the point. He is, we can infer, a total waste of space in the Oval Office who has no interest whatsoever in running the country. While he screws around (sometimes quite literally) and focuses on what makes him happy at the moment, these seven women have to find ways to keep the country on track by keeping the Dumbass in Chief in line. Fillinger never makes any specific claims, but I can certainly guess which real-life POTUS was the model for this play, and let's just say that even that guy would seem amazingly competent next to this one.
On this particular day, the seven women are trying to make sure he gets to a very important meeting that they know he won't get to unless he is herded in the right direction at the right time. Unfortunately, he is about as easy to herd as a house full of cats.
One of the women is FLOTUS (Karen Aldridge as Margaret), who has tolerated her idiot playboy of a husband about as much as she can. Sandra Marquez is Harriet, POTUS's chief of staff who is every bit as focused, organized, and knowledgeable as POTUS himself is not. She once believed in what he promised he would do, but is no longer under any illusions, just like Margaret. Also present is a young staff member, Caroline Neff's nervous and hapless Stephanie, who spends the first half of the play freaking out thinking she's going to be fired and most of the rest high as a kite on accidentally ingested drugs, giving Harriet something else to worry about.
Karen Rodriguez is Jean, the press secretary who has the unenviable job of finding some way to keep the press (one member of which, Celeste M. Cooper's Chris, happens to be onsite for a scheduled interview) from finding out what is really happening in the White House. Her job is made infinitely harder by the arrival of the president's ne'er-do-well sister Bernadette (Meighan Gerachis), fresh out of prison with the expectation that her brother will pardon her for her most recent brush with the law. (She's a drug dealer–and responsible for the goodies Stephanie takes.) But even she might be easier to handle than Dusty (Chloe Baldwin), who arrives for a meeting with POTUS pregnant with his baby.
Fillinger has pushed pretty much every button she can to create this farce, and director and Co-Artistic Director Audrey Francis does everything she can to make it work. From characters hiding in closets to frantic games of keep-away with precious busts to a chase through the White House hallways to keep the zonked-out (and partially undressed) Stephanie away from the press to a completely bonkers scene in which she and Dusty improvise entertainment for those gathered for the seemingly abandoned meeting, Francis and her talented cast flawlessly present everything Fillinger could imagine to write. (And, yes, there are several hilarious shocks and surprises along the way that, no, I'm not going to divulge here.)
As usual at Steppenwolf, the designers play major roles in the success of the play. Regina García's set, Raquel Adorno's costumes, Heather Gilbert's lights, Pornchanok Kanchanabanca's sound and original music, Maya Vinice Prentiss' intimacy design, and (especially in the chaotic scene that ends Act One) Almanya Narula's fight choreography are all critically important. And I would be remiss if I did not note that this brilliant show features an entirely femme team. I don't know how often that has happened in Steppenwolf's long history, but (since it is a theatre company known for its hard-hitting, masculine approach that Francis calls "muscular, athletic and gritty," adjectives she also applies to POTUS because who says women can't be all of these things?) I'm guessing somewhere between never and once in a blue moon.
POTUS is a true farce, and you'll laugh your head off–in fact, I think it might be the best show in town right now–but it is grounded in truths that ought to shock all audience members, but won't. Just this week, we've seen Congress nearly erupt into fist fights more than once and a finding of serious misconduct against one member (known for outright lying to the public) that may lead to his expulsion. And that isn't even counting the former POTUS who continues to add to a constantly growing legacy of manipulation that includes 91 felony charges against him and yet somehow still leads the polls for next year's race.
Maybe the real farce is in fact what is happening in the real world.
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive runs through December 10, 2023, at Steppenwolf Theatre, Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit steppenwolf.org.