Though we have less than two weeks to go before the election, you still have time to soak up the entirety of US presidential history in order to make a better-informed decision. In fact, Bad Habit Productions is willing to lay it all out for you, from George Washington to Barack Obama, in chronological order, in less than two hours.
“44 Plays for 44 Presidents,” beginning performances Saturday at the Boston Center for the Arts, features a cast of five, who take turns starring in these comedies, dramas, tragedies, dances, and musicals, averaging two minutes per chief executive.
The president in each play wears a special presidential coat. And at times you may need the visual aid.
“I’m honored to be playing Obama,” says Cambridge actress Brenna Fitzgerald, who voted for the current president and plans to do so again on Nov. 6.
Note that Fitzgerald is 23, female,
and white, and you’ll get an idea of the
anything-goes spirit of the piece, which was originally produced in 2002 by Chicago’s Neo-Futurists as “43 Plays for 43 Presidents.” Four of its five authors were members of the troupe. The updated version of the show is being staged around the country this year in what’s called the National Plays for Presidents Festival.
In Boston, Fitzgerald also portrays Jefferson, Buchanan, Harding, Hoover, Garfield, Harrison, and Clinton. And, speaking of anything goes, she had to relearn her childhood double-Dutch skills to play Obama — a metaphor for the challenges facing the 44th president that, she says, the script delivers poignantly.
“There was a while when I couldn’t read it without crying,” she says. “You’ve got to feel for these people who are running our country.”
Jeff Mosser, who directs the Bad Habit production, says the point of “44 Plays” is to make everyone feel like they have a hand in the country’s democracy and get out to vote.
“It’s a totally nonpartisan show,” Mosser insists. “No bit of this show lands on one side or the other. We take every candidate with a grain of salt.”
This year there’s a bonus. After the Obama play is performed, the audience will vote for the candidate they would like to see win the 2012 election. Then a 45th play will be performed, a coda to the evening. The writers have provided final scenes for both Obama and the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. It’s not certain exactly what will happen with this section of the show after Nov. 6, but voting may continue at the BCA.
The idea for the piece began with playwright Andy Bayiates, who was born in Lowell, grew up in Billerica, and went to Fitchburg State College. He ended up in Chicago as a member of the Neo-Futurists, whose signature shows include “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.”
“It was 2000, the election debacle was underway, and somebody on CNN mentioned Rutherford B. Hayes,” Bayiates recalls. “And I thought, Who?”
At the time, he was listening a lot to the album “State Songs,” an attempt by John Linnell of They Might Be Giants to write a song for every state in the nation. The combination set off a brainstorm. Bayiates came up with the concept for “43 Plays for 43 Presidents” and shared it with his fellow Neo-Futurists, who started pitching segments.
The resulting play was a success and ended up being mounted by a number of other companies, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, where Bayiates went to see it in 2008.
“The audience just had this really wonderful response to it. It felt a lot like the ugly yuckiness of an election year just seemed to leave the room, and everybody felt kinda good about democracy,” he says. “That was great, and when that happened, it gave me the idea: What if we could magnify the effect of this across the country?” Thus was the Plays for Presidents Festival born.
Mosser, then working at Actors Theatre, struck up a conversation with Bayiates, expressing his admiration for the play. Two years later, Mosser was drafted as community outreach and social media director for the Plays for Presidents Festival. His duties included finding troupes to produce the piece.
He and his wife had just moved to the Boston area, where he now works at Berklee College of Music and as a freelance director.
Mosser pitched the show and the festival to Bad Habit Productions, which not only joined up but soon suggested he direct. “I said, ‘I’d love to. I’ve been wanting to direct this for four years.’ ”
Olympia Dukakis as Mother Courage
Olympia Dukakis, who starred as Prospera this summer in Shakespeare & Company’s “The Tempest,” will return to the Lenox theater next summer in the title role of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” directed by the company’s artistic director, Tony Simotes, who also helmed “The Tempest.” The cast is slated to include Dukakis’s brother, Apollo Dukakis, who played Gonzalo to her Prospera. The dates of the run and the titles of other mainstage productions are to be announced in December.