POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive opens with a single, shocking utterance of the C-word. Yes, that C-word (or an adjectival variation of it, at least). And then another. And another, until the audience’s shock gives way to laughter, gives way to intrigue, and gives way to a collective forward lean. Thus begins Selina Fillinger’s 100-minute political romp, running through November 12 at Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage, which cheekily abandons the usual pomp and circumstance of the Oval Office in favor of refreshing, sharp-tongued irreverence and laugh-out-loud absurdism.
In Fillinger’s White House, the President of the United States (POTUS) has been catapulted into a scandal of his own creation, having referred to his wife’s mood as… well, you know. Led by his tough chief of staff Harriet (an acerbic Naomi Jacobson), his team of strong and scrappy women, including press secretary Jean (an exquisite Natalya Lynette Rathnam) and First Lady Margaret (Felicia Curry, at the top of her game), fight to minimize the scandal while keeping the country and its diplomatic wheels in motion. With the arrival of his drug-dealing sister Bernadette (an impossibly cool Kelly McAndrew) and pregnant lover Dusty (a rapturous Sarah-Anne Martinez), and the hallucinatory meltdown of secretary Stephanie (an unrestrained Megan Hill), efforts to keep up appearances in front of full-time correspondent and mother Chris (a slow-burning Yesenia Iglesias) become futile.
Hilarity and exasperation ensue, and Fillinger pulls no punches as her characters face increasingly outlandish turns of events (not the least of which involves a marble bust of suffragist Alice Paul). In a play stuffed to the gills with searing reads, retorts, and rebukes of Washington workings (and the men who muck them up), Fillinger wields a wit that is sharp as a razor, but hits like a mace. She steadily raises the dramatic stakes like a jack under the Presidential limousine and impressively establishes a strong comedic rhythm in just a few lines. But, as is so often the case in such farce, after reaching a high watermark in the uproariously funny final scene of the first act, she struggles to maintain the high as she dutifully untangles her web of absurdities (the inclusion of an intermission certainly did no favors). Regardless, in the hands of a universally excellent ensemble, POTUS is an exhilarating night in the theater.
Director Margot Bordelon makes masterful use of the Fichandler’s in-the-round configuration. Utilizing all four stage-level entrances in equal measure, plus the upper perimeter of the audience, Bordelon engages the entirety of the sprawling space to immerse her viewers in the chaos. From its sloped sidelines, the audience watches the women of the White House grasp for power and leverage their relationships to exert influence, tasked again with cleaning up the messes of their boss/husband/lover/president. All the while, a glasslike replica of the White House, its bottom etched with the presidential seal, looms overhead, waiting to be shattered, but still remaining somehow out of reach. Responding to Margaret’s recitation of her hilariously extensive résumé, Chris asks, “Why aren’t you President?” “That’s the eternal question,” the First Lady replies.
Reid Thompson’s appropriately spare set provides a perfect balance between conjuring the majesty of the White House and keeping the focus on the performances. Marika Kent’s lighting is deeply rooted in expected shades of red and blue, but the occasional flash of hot pink reminds the audience that even though the titular dumbass sits in the chair behind the Resolute Desk (though not technically in the span of the play, due to an anal abscess), it’s the women of his world who really run the country. Ivania Stack’s pumpless costumes perfectly capture the conventions of Washington’s bureaucratic businesswear, while allowing the essence of each character to shine through clearly. Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design helps maintain momentum between scenes and is most exciting when incorporating the recognizable voices of such trailblazing journalists as Rita Braver, Susan Stamberg, and Nina Totenberg.
But it is the onstage performers who elevate Fillinger’s play to jubilation. Jacobson, Rathnam, Hill, Curry, Iglesias, Martinez, and McAndrew are doing extraordinary ensemble work, expertly blending physical comedy into the material, allowing the audience just enough time to process and respond, and keeping the action humming along without pause. Each performer earns their respective moment to shine, whether it be the dressing-down of a meddling, upstart colleague (Iglesias) or the bewildering performance of a positivity-promoting cheer routine (Martinez). They are uniformly excellent.
POTUS is a perfect choice for Hana Sharif’s debut as artistic director at Arena Stage, and this production is an encouraging sign of what’s to come. Sharif follows in the footsteps of Arena Stage co-founder and regional theater pioneer Zelda Fichandler, as well as 25-year Artistic Director Molly Smith, who programmed POTUS, and this production signals that Arena’s stages will continue to foster bold, new American work. While POTUS is both new and bold, it will also feel deeply familiar to Washington audiences who, if not immersed in the day-to-day shenanigans of American politics themselves, are only one or two degrees away from the fray.
It is also a departure from the rosy Washington depictions those political animals among us are most accustomed to. This POTUS is not for the idealists, nor the men who fail upward. It is not for the Jed Bartlets or the Mr. Smiths. It is one for the pragmatists, the fighters, the women who make our vast country run. And it is a rollicking good time.
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 ($41–$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.
Closed captioning begins October 24 via the GalaPro app. See Arena’s complete accessibility offerings here.
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.
Director Margot Bordelon on ‘POTUS,’ the bawdy feminist farce at Arena Stage (interview by Ravelle Brickman, October 18, 2023)