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Chaos and comedy abound in ‘POTUS’ from SpeakEasy Stage Company

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

... VIEW BIO
Chaos and comedy abound in ‘POTUS’ from SpeakEasy Stage Company
From left: Monique Ward Lonergan, Lisa Yuen, Catia, Crystin Gilmore in “POTUS.” PHOTO: NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

Playwright Selina Fillinger’s timely satire, “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” renders a frenzied day in the life of female staff members as they strive to clean up the latest mess caused by President Dumbass.

Nominated for three Tony Awards after its Broadway debut in 2022, “POTUS” is now on stage in Boston. The SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting its New England premiere through Oct. 15 at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts in Boston’s South End.

Distinguished Boston actor and director Paula Plum is directing SpeakEasy’s production, which is performed by a diverse seven-woman cast that includes some of the city’s top comedic actors. Running just under two hours with one intermission, Plum’s “POTUS” is smart, high-energy fun.

From left: Catia, Marianna Bassham and Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda. PHOTO: NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

Before the actors even step onstage, the set by Jenna McFarland Lord hints at the chaos to come. A turkey replaces a bald eagle in the presidential seal on the carpet in the Oval Office, and paintings are hung askew on walls that tilt like puzzle pieces.

With hurling props and slamming doors worthy of a Marx Brothers farce and a sharp satirical bite, “POTUS” unfolds in a series of fast-moving, short scenes, each like a round in a wrestling match.   

The sparring begins with two characters — Lisa Yuen’s earnest, harried Harriet, chief of staff, and Laura Latreille’s professional soother of a press secretary, Jean. They must deal with a fresh offense by the president, whose sex scandals and sexism include, as the play opens, his public use of a terrible word to describe the first lady.

Tension mounts as other insiders join their frantic debate on damage control — Chris, a dogged journalist pursuing a scoop while running her breast pumps, played by Catia; Margaret, the first lady, rendered by Crystin Gilmore as a would-be dynamo; and the president’s dorky personal secretary, Stephanie, in a delicate comic portrayal by Marianna Bassham.

Each actor conveys her character’s individuality while jousting in a high-energy ensemble, coached by fight/intimacy coordinator Angie Jepson. Costumes by Rebecca Glick further the satire. Harriet wears a strict black suit and her evening wear is a black tux ornamented with glistening epaulets. Stephanie is attired in a prim blue cardigan and sneakers; and the first lady, who describes herself as trying to be more “earthy,” always wears red.

Crystin Gilmore (left) and Marianna Bassham in “POTUS.” PHOTO: Nile Scott Studios

As panic rises, bodies, taunts and props fly, including a bust of suffragist Alice Paul, who in 1920 helped win women’s right to vote. The hurled bust knocks out the title character, unseen except for his feet, which stick out from behind a door.

Adding to the fracas, two alarming visitors arrive seeking the president: Dusty, his young dalliance, who joins the fray with aplomb, sexy dancing and rap, irresistibly concocted by Monique Ward Lonergan; and, just in time to top off the chaos, Bernadette, the president’s sister. Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda is a scene-stealer as butch lesbian Bernadette, a wily ex-con who has come to lobby for a presidential pardon, deal drugs, and check in on her ex. These two outsiders have all the fun, and take the audience along.

Each of the seven women has her foibles and moments of strength. Bassham’s timid Stephanie careens and crumples, doped up on Bernadette’s “Tums.” But when an ambassador calls, she grabs the phone and in fluent Arabic keeps a high-stakes meeting from being derailed.

As they take charge, the characters spark moments of mutual admiration, and a question recurs like a refrain: “Why isn’t SHE president?”

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