ABOVE: (from left) Stephanie Styles is Dusty, Deirdre Lovejoy is Harriet, Kim Blanck is Jean and Allison Guinn is Bernadette in Selina Fillinger’s feminist satire POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, performing at Berkeley Rep through Oct. 22. BELOW: Dominique Toney is Chris, a journalist and single mom. Photos by Kevin Berne
Berkeley Repertory Theatre opens its 2023-24 season with a hot property. Selina Fillinger’s POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive had a starry run on Broadway in 2022 and is now popping up all over the place because a) it’s very funny b) it features a cast of seven women and c) it attempts to turn our ongoing political nightmare (at least for half of the country) into the stuff of theatrical farce.
All the ingredients are there for a raucous experience. On this day in the White House – which could easily be imagined as a typical day between January 2017 and January 2020 – the president’s staff is attempting major damage control on a number of fronts. POTUS (who is not a named or featured character) has shot his mouth off in an astonishingly offensive manner. His international relations have gone nuclear. His constant infidelities are catching up with him. And he’s supposed to be hosting 200 feminists at a dinner for FML (Female Models of Leadership, in this case).
So it’s up to POTUS’s chief of staff, Harriet (Deirdre Lovejoy), and his press secretary, Jean (Kim Blanck) to keep the government running, as they usually do. Margaret (Stephanie Pope Lofgren), the First Lady, is also on hand to lend her brainpower (she has degrees from Stanford and Harvard) and her mammoth ego to the mayhem.
There are, of course, abundant surprises that upset the schedule and demonstrate just what a raging dumbass POTUS is and has been for the previous three years.
Playwright Fillinger has a wicked way with a one-liner, and her first act has some gargantuan guffaws. Her women are smart, ambitious and crude as hell. From the first line to the last, the play’s language is so salty you may need to bring hydration – and that’s when the play is at its best. The more outsize and crazy the action, the sharper the satire and the bigger the laughs.
Director Annie Tippe, who did such beautiful work at Berkeley Rep on Octet (read my review here), doesn’t show the same command here. When the farce really erupts in Act 2, the pacing (at least on opening night) never found the manic rhythm that would carry the audience through the hilarity without getting annoyed.
She also gets uneven work from her cast. What should be razor sharp in the performances too often feels forced and manic without being funny. That said, there are some strong moments from Stephanie Styles as a Midwestern farmer’s daughter (yes, like the old jokes) who slips and out of stereotype long enough to discuss recidivism and reproductive rights and from Allison Guinn as a woman of many dark talents who turns out to be kind of a super-raunchy, fresh-from-prison Melissa McCarthy.
There’s also something jagged in the play itself as it extracts laughs from what is actually a terrifying (and seemingly ongoing) situation in what’s left of our sand castle of a democracy. Sure, we want to laugh at the idiot in the White House. Sure, we want to fist pump in solidarity with the women who do the actual work and should actually be president. But the truth is (and this is pointed out in the play), they’re also enabling the Dumbass in Chief and perpetuating his destruction. So this satire has a very real edge to it, and the laughs often have a sickening feel to them. That’s certainly an interesting place to put an audience, and one that could be explored more thoroughly, but Fillinger tends more toward the sitcom than she does the dark farce.
There’s nasty fun to be had in POTUS, but the titular dumbass casts a mighty shadow that the seven women trying to keep him alive can’t quite escape.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Selina Fillinger’s POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive continues through Oct. 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$134 (subject to change). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.