You think going into POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive that it’s going to be a cringy but occasionally endearing post-2016 feminist political comedy, but it’s not. The City of Fairfax Theatre Company is doing a commendable job with a satire that either took a big swing and a miss or doesn’t know what it’s trying to say. “Women can be enablers too!” is my best guess. It’s not good media literacy practice to go into a work of art looking for a spelled-out allegory, but it’s a bad sign if you’re not sure what a satire is satirizing. Regardless, under Jack Lockrem’s direction, the City of Fairfax Theatre Company cast puts such astounding energy into their performances that many of the script’s problems aren’t fatal.
POTUS, written by Selina Fillinger, premiered on Broadway in 2022. It centers on seven women working in the White House: the President’s personal secretary Stephanie, his wife Margaret, his Press Secretary Jean, his sister convicted of multiple felonies Bernadette, his Chief of Staff Harriet, his Iowan mistress Dusty, and single-mother Huffington Post reporter Chris. Just as they start dealing with the President using a slur in reference to his wife, they find out about his affair with a country girl named Dusty. Shortly after that, they (spoiler alert) accidentally drop a marble bust of Alice Paul on his head and presume him dead.
Heather Plank and Carolyn Heier Young have utterly mastered their stressed-out-’n’-sweary Veep character impressions as presidential staffers Harriet and Jean, striking an ideal balance between how you imagine those people sound in real life and Armando Iannucci’s comedic pastiche. Catherine Mae Woodson plays the desperate Stephanie, who badly attempts power stances mid-conversation when spoken over or intimidated, which happens a lot. The script’s cringe humor is hard for even someone with her comedic chops to make funny. But the second she accidentally takes hard drugs from Bernadette, she is a riot and scene-stealer, stalking and sprinting around the stage in an inner tube and American flag cape in her undergarments. Even the ridiculous “I Will Survive” scene barely fits diegetically but works thanks to her fantastic comedic performance.
Aja Goode is sympathetic as single-mom reporter Chris, attempting to pump breastmilk in any spare moment while trying to report on the President’s staff as they commit heinous crimes. As a self-insert of sorts for an audience exhausted by real-life politics-as-theater, she frequently serves as the rest of the cast’s conscience as they attempt to blackmail their way through PR nightmares. It is her character that gives me the most confidence in my hypothesis that the show’s core message is “Women can be enablers too, but don’t have to be.” Feminism!
Despite the fast-talking nature of most of the aforementioned characters, they appear easier to perform than the characters with the greatest satirical potential. The actors of these characters exert incredible energy, but different direction could have made them even more effective. As Dusty, Maggie Shircliff performs with repetitive, over-the-top vocal inflection in an attempt to fit the character’s “country bumpkin” archetype. As Bernadette, Brittany Washington pulls off the devil-may-care, tattooed, drug-trafficking-in-the-West-Wing, red-haired felon character who towers over the rest of the cast. However, her costuming by Lori Crockett and her direction feel too on-the-nose for a satirical show. Juanisha Brooks’ First Lady Margaret is an occasionally funny but mostly odd attack on first ladies, who besides Melania Trump don’t seem guilty of the crimes of bad taste and loss of perspective that her character satirizes.
Even when the characters aren’t the best executed, by themselves or in context on the cast, I have to give credit to the massive amount of energy that each actor puts into their performance — everyone is dialed up to a ten. There are also sparks of brilliance in direction, casting, and performance in the scenes with Harriet and Jean, the Act I closing scene when everything comes to a head, and throughout Act II as you-know-what hits the fan. But there are too many scenes that spend too long on cringe humor or unfunny sex jokes, seemingly to compensate for lack of plot or things to say. Also, energy alone is not enough to make a joke funny, and given how much deadpan humor there is in this show, exerting energy is not always the best approach. However, in the show’s physical comedy and fight scenes — on Fight Choreographer Katie Warner’s and Fight Captain Heather Plank’s watch — the performers’ energy is welcome and highly successful. The performers’ energy even makes the strobe lighting leading up to the President’s presumed murder make directorial sense.
Without this cast’s being the world’s best and most experienced comic actors, it is quite impressive how well they delivered this difficult script. These performers are incredibly talented and milk the potential-rife script for all it’s worth (in a way that would make Chris proud) even when their direction doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Aspects of the set leave something to be desired, with the press room set having noticeably uneven and messy text and paintwork on the White House logo. The simple grace of the main set’s blue walls also feels odd against baroque chairs, a visually loud tapestry rug, and lots of quaint decor, including a Ming vase. The fantastic minimalism of the “I Will Survive” scene, in which Dusty and Stephanie sing and perform their hearts out in front of the stage curtain, raises the question of whether a more barebones set design may have been more effective. A simpler set would have emphasized the story’s absurdity and muchness, if you will, against its minimalist backdrop. A lone podium could have probably worked just fine for the press scene, for example.
Much of this play reminds me of stereotypes about how female comics rely on sex jokes to get low-hanging-fruit-based success, which of course is also an issue of what consumers demand. The show runs out of steam in using blue humor to say anything significant very early on — yes, we get it, politicians are morally bankrupt and eager for validation and attention. Perhaps there is some value in showing that hardworking, well-meaning women are so often sucked into that too.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
POTUS, or Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive plays through February 11, 2024, presented by City of Fairfax Theatre Company performing at Katherine Johnson Middle School, 3801 Jermantown Rd, Fairfax, VA. Purchase tickets ($25 for adults and $15 for students) online or email [email protected]. February 9 is Pay What You CanNight.
COVID Safety: Masks are recommended but not required. See the City of Fairfax Theatre Company’s complete COVID-19 Policy here.
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
By Selina Fillinger
Directed by Jack Lockrem