The first thing audiences will see, when they enter the four-sided Fichandler theater at Arena Stage, is a giant chandelier in the form of a plexiglass White House, looming over the darkened stage.
It’s a spectacular sight, and a reminder that the play about to unfold is about our presidential palace, home to our vaunted leaders, but lit up to reveal the shenanigans going on inside.
The full title of the play—POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive—pretty much spells out the plot. A philandering president, caught with his pants down (figuratively and literally), must be protected from his own stupidity.
His guardians, in this case, are seven smart women, girded for battle as they try to hide the foibles of the fatuous fool whose pomposity is rivaled only by his idiotic behavior.
POTUS, not surprisingly, has a lot of filthy language. And bawdy physical humor too.
The humor—verbal and physical—is delivered by an “awesome” cast, according to Margot Bordelon, the New York–based director of POTUS, as we chatted in an otherwise empty café at Arena in between rehearsals last week.
“It’s a magical ensemble,” she told me. Of the seven actors appearing in the play, four are fixtures of both Arena and the DC theater scene. They include Felicia Curry, Naomi Jacobson, Natalya Lynette Rathnam, and Kelly McAndrew. Megan Hill, Yesenia Iglesias, and Sarah-Anne Martínez, while newcomers to Arena, have all worked with Bordelon before.
When POTUS opened a year ago on Broadway, it was quite different scenically. At the Shubert Theatre, it was performed on a traditional proscenium stage with a turntable.
On the other hand, the DC production takes advantage of Arena’s built-in theater-in-the-round, which is more audience-friendly. But the setting presented a challenge.“We had to be very creative in adapting the theater-in-the-round format to farce,” Bordelon explained.
“For example, POTUS, like a lot of farce, involves a lot of slamming of doors. Since we didn’t have the usual doors at the rear of the stage, we”—meaning the director, set designer Reid Thompson, and stage manager Christi B. Spann—”decided to create pop-up doors. They spring up from the floor. And they’re made of plexiglass, so the audience can see right through them.”
In addition to the visual drama of the set, much of the spectacle of this production comes from the actors’ dance-like movement, choreographed by assistant director Kayla Warren.
“While there’s a lot of verbal sparring—written into the script—there’s plenty of physical sparring too,” Bordelon added, crediting fight director Sierra Young and a very athletic cast.
Surprisingly, POTUS is playwright Selina Fillinger’s first stab at farce, which is a genre based on the comedies written by Georges Feydeau for the French stage in the 19th century. Typical elements of farce are the slamming of doors and mistaken identities.
“In this case, form and content merge,” she added, pointing out that New York Times critic Jesse Green, in his review of the play, had quoted the playwright saying that even without a man in the room, “Patriarchy still exists, and we still play by its rules.”
Put another way, according to Fillinger, “The very notion of women living in a patriarchal system is, by definition, a farce.”
“Selina has a wicked sense of humor. And she’s always experimenting with new forms of comedy,” said Bordelon, whose collaboration with Fillinger goes back to 2017. The two met when the playwright, just out of Northwestern, wrote Faceless, which was produced by Northlight Theatre that year.
“We had the same agent—Michael Finkle at William Morris Endeavor—and he put us together. It was a love match! Selina,” she added, “is a natural.”
The two worked together on Something Clean, which had its premiere Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Underground in 2019.
“The play was a wonderfully refreshing exercise. She was so exact with her language. Often new plays go through a lot of changes in rehearsals, but hers was precise and ready to play,” Bordelon said.
When the two met to discuss POTUS, Fillinger explained that the new play, like many other comedies, is “a tragedy that we laugh at until we don’t.”
“The play, which is modeled on several presidents—Trump, of course, and Clinton, too—is a critique of male dominance,” Bordelon said. “Yes, it draws on ‘Trumpiness,’ but it’s a product of the ‘Me Too’ movement as well, plus the absolute need for more diversity on stage.
“It’s shocking how much misogyny is internalized, both by women and men (of all genders),” she said.
Misogyny is a hot topic nowadays. The increased focus on its effect, and the role that feminism in theater can play, stems from several factors, including new leadership. Today, there are more women directors—like Bordelon herself—and more theaters that are committed to change.
POTUS is Arena’s first production under the aegis of Hana S. Sharif, Arena’s newly appointed artistic director, who is following in the decidedly feminist footprints of predecessors Molly Smith and Zelda Fichandler.
“The artistic director is the gatekeeper of change,” Bordelon observed.
“There are also more women writing plays,” she continued. As a director specializing in new plays, she finds herself drawn to feminist work. “We play in the same playgrounds,” she quipped.
In fact, collaboration between a playwright and a director is not unusual. When Bordelon was a graduate student at Yale Drama School, she and her classmates often worked closely with the MFA playwrighting students, becoming ‘part of the DNA of the play’ in the process.
“I love feminist comedy,” she told me. “Theater is often queer-friendly. Theater opened my eyes to different lifestyles, different ways of thinking and being.”
Now 43, Bordelon has been directing plays for 21 years. She started as an actor, attending Cornish College in Seattle, not far from Everett, Washington, where she grew up. As a junior at college, she auditioned for the original works track, which combined writing and directing with acting. It was not until two years later, in Chicago, that she decided that directing was her métier.
Turning to the present, “Washington is a fabulous theater city,” she said.
Since arriving here for her stint with POTUS, she’s seen and loved several plays, including My Mother and the Full-Scale Invasion at Woolly Mammoth. “It was absolutely fabulous, wonderfully acted, designed, and phenomenally directed,” she said. Earlier this year, she saw Ethan Heard’s gorgeous production of Pacific Overtures at Signature and Morgan Gould’s sensational Jennifer, Who Is Leaving at Roundhouse.
About POTUS, she added, “The message of the play is that salvation lies in sisterhood. It’s by aligning ourselves with one another, building one another up, bringing each other along, and amplifying each other’s voices that real change can begin to occur.”
Certainly, it is a sign that change is underway—and that theatergoers are ready to embrace it—that POTUS, just a year after opening, has become wildly successful. In addition to its regional premiere at Arena, three other major regional theaters—Berkeley, Steppenwolf, and Geffen—are mounting productions this year.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive plays through November 12, 2023, on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($56–$95) may be obtained online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office (Tuesday-Sunday, 12-8 p.m.).
Arena Stage offers savings programs including “pay your age” tickets for those aged 30 and under, student discounts, and “Southwest Nights” for those living and working in the District’s Southwest neighborhood. To learn more, visit arenastage.org/savings-programs.
The program for POTUS is online here.
Captions are available via the GalaPro app.
COVID Safety: Arena Stage recommends but does not require that patrons wear facial masks in theaters except in occasional mask-required performances. For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.