44 Plays for 44 Presidents
Playwright: Multiple authors At: The Neo-Futurists, 5153 N. Ashland Ave. Tickets: 1-773-275-5255; www.neofuturists.org; $20. Runs through: Nov. 10
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Playwright: Michael Friedman (music and lyrics), Alex Timber (book). At: Bailiwick Chicago at National Pastime Theater, 941 W. Lawrence Ave. Tickets: www.bailiwickchicago.com; $25-$30. Runs through: Nov. 10
Even at theater, you can't get away from presidential politics. Two shows about the presidency are running plus a third about presidential assassins. We'll save the shooters for a week or so and focus today on plays Presidential.
Both 44 Plays for 44 Presidents and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (BBAJ) are vaudeville entertainment of sorts, with BBAJ billing itself as such although 44 Plays is closer to the mark. First staged in 2002 (only 43 Plays then), the Neo-Futurist potpourri offers a song, skit or comedy routine about each White House occupant. It's a variety show of two-to-four-minute acts, most of which are comic and a few of which supply pointed commentary.
Being broad and shallow, the 44 impressions are hit-or-miss. Martin Van Buren (8th president) receives no credit for creating the modern party -nominating convention. Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th) isn't acknowledged as a reformer who created the Civil Service to defang political hiring. Richard Nixon's legitimate domestic achievements are credited (such as starting the EPA), but Vietnam and Watergate are ignored. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama pointedly ask for help from Congress and don't get any.
There's a joyful six-person cast under director Halena Kays and a great little band under musical director Mike Przygoda. It's a good-time show with just enough bite to it, especially if you can remember presidents before the first George Bush (as most youthful Neo-Futurist audiences cannot). The cast includes Neo-Futurist ensemble member Joe Dempsey, long one of Chicago's most skillful comic actors, who is first among equals in 44 Plays.
The 100-minute long Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson focuses entirely on president #7, the first anti-establishment and populist chief executive from what was then our western frontier, Tennessee. Jackson himself was an establishment figure by the time he became president after a long military and political career, but he successfully positioned himself as a Washington outsider (sound familiar?) opposed to the Virginia-Massachusetts oligarchy of the Founding Fathers.
BBAJ calls itself a vaudeville because it tells Jackson's story through a loose structure of songs (mostly not-very-distinguished punk rock), sketch-like scenes and narrative devices that give Jackson the aura of a disaffected youth who becomes a rock star. Indeed, with a sexual scandal about his wife (a divorced woman but still married when he wooed her), his military dash and his "we the people" political philosophy, Jackson absolutely was a charismatic figure.
But BBAJ is crude storytelling, both vulgar and intentionally offensive. Frontiersman Jackson is seen as the only heterosexual male while other political figures are portrayed in gay stereotypes, among them Martin Van Buren (a Jackson ally), John Quincy Adams (whom Jackson defeated for re-election) and James Monroe (the fifth president).
Ultimately, BBAJ focuses on Jackson as the architect of Native American destruction in order to facilitate white westward expansion (so-called "manifest destiny"). Today Jackson's genocidal policy (as some view it) competes with Jacksonian democracy as his principal legacy. The Neo-Futurist's skit focuses on the same issue, and I learned as much about Andy in four minutes of 44 Plays as in 100 minutes of BBAJ.
The agile 15-person cast isn't at fault, performing the always-clever staging of Scott Ferguson and headlined by youthful veteran Matt Holzfeind as Jackson (with the charisma to pull it off). However, the authors intentionally dumb down what they know about Jackson, which always is an insult to the audience. They also offer rather heavy-handed contemporary parallels with regard to immigration policy (Jackson was anti-immigrant) and Washington insiders. Ferguson and company makes a good show and certainly have fun with the material, but there's less here than meets the eye.