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When the first line of a farce is “cunt,” audiences should anticipate two possibilities: a stupid disaster, or a thrillingly hilarious show that takes bold risks. Fortunately for Boston theatergoers, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “POTUS” offers thrills, laughs, and risks.
Directed by Paula Plum, SpeakEasy’s “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” runs until Oct. 15 in Boston’s South End. The play, written by Selina Fillinger, focuses on seven women in the White House who attempt to handle an increasingly out-of-control crisis. Through satire, “POTUS” highlights gender-based power imbalances in American politics and society at large. SpeakEasy’s production aptly probes the issue while ultimately succeeding as a funny, fast-paced, riveting farce. The all-female cast and all-female creative team develop an impressive show without relying on the play’s vulgarity and chaos. As a result, SpeakEasy’s production of “POTUS” is not just a riot; it’s a well-done riot.
Plum presents a thoughtful approach to an absurd show. “POTUS” draws from crude language and lewd humor, which could grow stale after a few minutes — but Plum does not depend on shocking comments to carry the show. While repetition of the phrase “ass play” is not enough to sustain uproarious laughter for the nearly two-hour performance, SpeakEasy’s “POTUS” remains hilarious from beginning to end because of its well-developed creative choices and talented cast.
“POTUS” immediately introduces the audience to the White House by playing a selection of pre-show “bitch beats” — unapologetically aggressive, rage-filled, anti-patriarchal music by empowered, fed-up women. Rock band Lady Pills sings, “I’m sick of stupid men / I think I’m gonna eat them, eat them.” In all of the songs, the flippant, funny lyrics handle misogyny, a heavy, serious topic — and the angry, angsty music excites listeners to have fun and dance. These contradictory qualities set the tone for “POTUS,” which contributes crucially to its success: By preparing the audience with the right type of energy, “bitch beats” place them in the necessary mindset to fully enjoy the show.
The play’s greatest asset is its talented cast. Each actor attentively shapes every aspect of her role, which highlights each character’s individuality and importance. The actors continue to entertain the audience during scene transitions, humorously staying in character while reorienting set pieces. The clear diversity of women — who all offer valuable contributions despite contrasting one another — demonstrates the multiplicity of womanhood and sells the absurdly comedic situations in the story, which are both essential to making “POTUS” work.
The strong acting performances save SpeakEasy’s “POTUS” from its shortcomings in plot. While every farce requires absurdity, some of the play’s twists and turns are a bit too crazy, and the story in the second act unravels to a ludicrous extent — but SpeakEasy's cast holds audience attention for the full duration of the show. They garner laughs and tug at heartstrings. In moments when the plot lacks substance, the actors prevent the play from falling apart.
The entire cast performs well, but Marianna Bassham, Laura Latreille, and Monique Ward Lonergan truly stand out.
Bassham’s portrayal of Stephanie, an anxious secretary, comically embodies the character’s lack of confidence and her genuine desire to thrive as a working woman. Bassham’s physical commitment to the role is amusing and convincing: She shrinks herself by moving quickly and holding her head low, and her attempts to increase confidence through “power-stancing” — standing in an expansive posture — are awkward and goofy.
Latreille plays Jean, the loud, sharp, intense Press Secretary, with powerful command of the stage, which the character requires — but her most exceptional talent is her smart comedic timing. Her mastery of intonation, pacing, and rhythm ensure that every funny line lands effectively.
As the President’s mistress Dusty, Lonergan evades the pitfall of flattening the character into unintelligence and promiscuity. She plays a hilarious floozy — but she also conveys her adorably enthusiastic spirit, and she adds weight to the few lines that reveal compassion, care, and sensitivity. By shaping Dusty into a lovable, sincere, compelling character, Lonergan adds a critical dimension to the play’s multifaceted representation of womanhood.
“POTUS” benefits not only from individual performances but also from the dynamics between different characters. The President’s sister Bernadette (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda), brings out a weaker, more vulnerable side of Jean, and Dusty brings out a looser, more courageous side of Stephanie. These interactions are essential to the play’s complexity — and they work because of the actors’ ability to play off one another, which brings playfulness, spontaneity, and high energy to the stage. The actors’ cohesion and synergy invigorates the show and demonstrates Plum’s excellent direction.
Like any good farce, “POTUS” involves physical comedy, but the stage combat in SpeakEasy’s production is more thoughtful than mindless slapstick. For example, when the entire cast engages in a tense, gripping fight scene, beautifully choreographed by Angie Jepson, frail Stephanie throws a surprisingly epic punch, and bubbly Dusty cartwheels across the stage. Details like these allow the actors to continue the ridiculous humor while heightening the tension and mayhem — and the harmony of those two elements propels the show toward reaching its aims.
Appropriately topsy-turvy scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord captures Plum’s vision and the audience’s experience. Set in The White House, walls and doors are slanted at various angles in various directions, indicating silliness, imbalance, and disorder; vibrant orange-and-white striped wallpaper hints at the design of a circus; and the presidential seal on the floor replaces the eagle with a turkey, an odd bird that connotes foolishness and failure.
That’s “POTUS” at SpeakEasy Stage Company: a slanted, silly show that vibrantly and oddly displays the foolish failure of politics and patriarchy. It’s satirical criticism but nonpartisan, it’s an absurd farce but not senseless, and it’s a hilarious comedy but still moving. SpeakEasy’s “POTUS” pleases, amuses, excites, and entertains. Humor is almost always based in tragedy; “POTUS” runs with that idea and wins the race.
SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” runs through Oct. 15 at the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
—Staff writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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