Historians, look to your laurels. There are sharp-eyed theater artists determined to wrest the national narrative from your hands and plunk it onto the stage, far from the ivory tower.
A case in point is the kaleidoscopic “44 Plays for 44 Presidents,’’ at Bad Habit Productions, which sketches rapid-fire portraits of every single commander in chief in about two hours. This is American history on caffeine. As a bonus, the show offers a spoof of the man who fervently hopes to be elected No. 45 next Tuesday, Mitt Romney.
Created by members of the Chicago-based Neo-Futurists and now receiving its Boston premiere in a production directed by Jeffrey Mosser, “44 Presidents’’ often succeeds in capturing something essential about its subjects while cutting them down to size. In this, it shares the insurgent spirit of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,’’ an emo-rock sendup of the nation’s seventh president that is playing just downstairs in the Boston Center for the Arts’s Calderwood Pavilion, at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
As with that musical deconstruction of Old Hickory, “44 Presidents’’ makes no pretense of evenhandedness in its verdicts — scathing, admiring, or simply cheeky — on the men who have led or misled our country.
Attired in white shirts and neckties, a nimble and hard-working cast of five — Brooks Reeves, Brenna Fitzgerald, Morgan Bernhard, Britt Mitchell, and Will Moore — takes turns portraying the commanders-in-chief, signified by the donning of a blue blazer with an American flag pin on the lapel. When it comes to Teddy Roosevelt, though, four of them play him at once, mustaches and all, a nod to TR’s gargantuan personality, appetites, and talents.
Other presidents, such as George H.W. Bush (Reeves), receive harsher treatment. A sketch suggests that ambition and a determination to shed the “wimp” label caused a self-proclaimed “honorable man’’ to lose his moral compass. We see Bush follow strategist Lee Atwater into the sewer of race-baiting by employing the infamous Willie Horton ads against opponent Michael Dukakis in 1988. It’s one of numerous reminders in “44 Presidents’’ that dirty campaigns were part of the national fabric long before super PACs arrived on the scene.
The set, designed by Mosser, is dominated by a classroom-like wall bedecked with artistic representations of the 44 presidents. (One rendering shows Jimmy Carter — at least I assume it’s Carter — as a smiling peanut.) Atop that wall is a sign that flashes the word “Quote’’ whenever one of the actors utters a line actually said by a president. Five blue boxes, adorned with stars, are arrayed around the stage. On one of them sits a scale, into either side of which small blocks are periodically poured when states are added, North and South, as the 19th century lurches along. When it’s Lincoln’s turn in the spotlight, he scatters the blocks.
That’s one of several resonant images in “44 Presidents.’’ To illustrate William Henry Harrison’s brutal campaign against Native Americans (whose mistreatment is also a major theme in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’’), Fitzgerald, playing Harrison, systematically stabs dozens of red balloons, one after the other, with a hunting knife. Corruption, an omnipresent force in US public life, is evoked in a wordless dance sequence, choreographed by Alli Engelsma-Mosser, in which crooked politicians swirl around and eventually overwhelm the hapless James Garfield (Fitzgerald), engulfing the president in a blizzard of papers he is forced to sign.
Speaking of corruption: Richard M. Nixon is the subject of a gospel-rock number that bouncily promises “a fresh look at a guy we thought we knew’’ before ticking off some of Nixon’s far-sighted initiatives, such as establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and bolstering funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. But a clever finishing twist reveals that history’s most famous unindicted co-conspirator never really changed his stripes.
Some other sequences fall flat. You’d think George W. Bush would be a choice target, but “44 Presidents’’ belabors the obvious, that Bush was polarizing. It’s all heat, no light as figures representing the left and right trade talking points at high volume. Similarly lacking in imagination is the show’s John F. Kennedy sequence, built on videotaped interviews in which people are stopped on Boston Common and asked to describe where they were when they heard about JFK’s assassination — hardly a fresh idea — and to assess his presidency.
The segment goes on too long and says little that hasn’t been said umpteen times before, two characteristics not common to most of the many plays in “44 Presidents.’’