Theater Review: “POTUS, Or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive”
By Olivia Sutton
POTUS supplies plenty of political amusement as it pits savvy, competent women against the blithering males running the American government.
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive by Selina Fillinger. Directed by Paula Plum. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Roberts Studio Theater, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, through October 15.
Who runs the world? Beyoncé fans would reply that girls are doing the really heavy lifting. It takes seven women to prop up the President of the United States in this satirical farce by L.A.-based playwright and performer Selina Fillinger. Or let’s say they are doing their best to keep him in operational order. Directed by Paula Plum with an all-star, all-female cast, the staging centers around the women in the big honcho’s inner circle. His disastrous three-year term as leader of the free world has reached (yet another) crisis point, and it is females to the rescue. As farces go, it is appropriately over-the-top, its absurdity memorably underlined by a punchy opening scene featuring Lisa Yuen (Angie, The Prom) and Laura Latreille, both making their return to Speakeasy Stage. Of course, underneath the exaggerated chaos in the Oval Office sits a reality that any woman who’s ever found herself trying to keep her head above water in patriarchy will painfully recognize.
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive begins with Harriet (Yuen) and Jean (Latreille) deliberating over the latest news stemming from the President’s sex and sexism scandals. This includes a disastrous press conference in which he publicly disrespected his wife, Margaret, (a compelling Crystin Gilmore). More female characters are introduced via shocking surprises and humorous twists. The opening scenes set up what should have been coming — a biting commentary on the American political landscape and the strain it puts on professional relationships among women who take up that line of work. There’s plenty of fodder for that kind of incisive humor, including how demeaningly Margaret treats White House secretary Stephanie (a hilarious Marianna Bassham). And then there is the tension between Jean and the dangerously ambitious White House reporter Chris (a stellar performance from Speakeasy newcomer Catia). But the script falls short of delivering a piercing critique of the patriarchy and its power dynamics. POTUS is too content to settle for predictable laughs about the haplessness of it all to suggest the need for radical change.
This is not to say that Fillinger lacks ambition. The play is an admirable effort to dramatize the plight of older, middle-aged women and queer folk who are in positions of power and influence. Bold characters, such as Bernadette (a dynamic performance by Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda), and even more timid women, such as Stephanie, are representative of the unsung heroes making things happen behind the scenes in our companies, government offices, and institutions of higher education. There is even a subtle nod toward the complexity of race and influence. An exclusive interview between Chris and Margaret becomes dicey after Chris challenges Margaret’s intentions as the Black first lady.
Yet, while it is good to have these points scored, the script falls short of providing a fresh critique on its major target, the patriarchy, perhaps because the dramatist doesn’t want to do more than stroke liberal sensibilities. For example, the patriarchy is condemned, but its future is never challenged. Chris’s monologue in the second act comes close, calling out Harriet, Jean, and Margaret for doing their best to keep the POTUS up and running:
“He should not have walked in this room, he should not be living in this house, he should not be running this nation and YOU KNOW IT! He’s the pyromaniac, but you gave him kindling, you gave him matches, you figured he’d burn his fingers and learn his lesson — well he DIDN’T!”
The next step is left unsaid — even as a punch line. Let’s burn down the patriarchy. My argument is that, when a powerful man has abused or attacked a woman, women are inevitably called to his side to help clean up the mess. They are not just working for someone who is unethical or incompetent: these males are empowered by an unjust system that benefits the very women who are helping to keep it going. The over-the-top antics here generate plenty of laughs, but there is a reluctance to go for the jugular of the patriarchy. The closest we come is — tellingly — Chris’s mental breakdown.
Along with that, the script’s characters continually raise the “eternal question” among themselves: “Why isn’t she/aren’t you president?” In an interview for the Speakeasy Stage company production Fillinger gave her answer: “Those in power do not see women or queer people as equal to cis men, nor do they want to.” Why isn’t that argument articulated in the play? This would have added considerably more meat to the satire: changing the system we are all suffering under will mean transforming — or bypassing — dehumanizing prejudice. If Fillinger had gone there, POTUS would have delivered a more robustly direct examination of patriarchy’s baleful influence on the lives of its characters.
Still, POTUS supplies plenty of political amusement as it pits savvy, competent women against the blithering males running the American government. If only the script had taken the next — albeit risky — step of going beyond dissecting the power dynamics of Washington. It is time for our satires to suggest that the patriarchal system should be kicked to the curb of K Street.
Olivia Sutton is a graduate of Boston College with a BA in Linguistics. Currently she is pursuing a Masters in Journalism at Boston University. She is a contributing writer for the Arts Fuse focusing on food, wine, and the performing arts.