Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's recent review of The Mountaintop
Director Margot Bordelon has brought together seven accomplished actresses on the in-the-round Fichandler Stage to tell the riotous story of one bad day in the life of a (never-seen) President of the United States, or POTUS, through the women in his orbit. Warning: the dialogue, while hilarious, is thoroughly profane, beginning with a notorious insult to women.
Reid Thompson has designed a minimalist set with necessary furniture appearing unobtrusively via hydraulic lifts in the stage floor, and (slightly skewed) portraits of past presidents in the four entry corridors. The main visual impact comes from a large glass model of the White House suspended high above the stage–a comic nod to "transparency," perhaps, or a warning to people who live in glass houses.
The women behind POTUS are Harriet (Naomi Jacobson), his tightly wound, fiercely capable chief of staff; Jean (Natalya Lynette Rathnam), the press secretary who has to spin his comments; Stephanie (Megan Hill), his secretary, who has extensive work skills and no self-esteem; Margaret (Felicia Curry), his terrifyingly accomplished First Lady; Dusty (Sarah-Anne Martinez), his young "special friend" who has just arrived from Iowa; Bernadette (Kelly McAndrew), his sister and a convicted international drug trafficker; and Chris (Yesenia Iglesias), a White House reporter on her first day back after maternity leave.
The seven performers create a formidable ensemble, bouncing their characters off each other like pro athletes, but some of the characters as written demand more attention. Specifically, Jacobson's calibrated exasperation at cleaning up other people's messes; Curry's aggression, sometimes passive, sometimes not; Martinez's cheerful attitude toward everything; McAndrew's tough exterior with a few soft spots; and, most explosively, Hill's personality transformation after Stephanie mistakenly swallows a fistful of pills from Bernadette's stash.
Over the course of two fast-moving acts, the women share secrets that no one outside can know, inadvertently spread misinformation among themselves, make mistakes and work to correct them, and learn what they are capable of when they work together. Harriet and Margaret specifically say people have asked why one of them is not president, rather than the man who won the election, and the answer is always the same: "That's the eternal question."
Ivania Stack's costume designs emphasize the wearers' personalities, from Rathnam's sleek designer suit and black turtleneck to Curry's fuchsia pantsuit and Crocs and McAndrew's stripped-down black outfit and tattoos. Marika Kent's lighting design serves to delineate segments of the stage space and provides shifting neon highlights to the overhanging White House.
One extra bonus of a Washington production: several noted D.C.-based journalists including Susan Stamberg, Nina Totenberg, and Rita Braver have leant their voices to "news bulletins" throughout the action.
POTUS or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive runs through November 12, 2023, at Arena Stage, Mead Center for American Theater, Fichandler Stage, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
By Selina Fillinger