American Blues Theater Presents FIVE PRESIDENTS Review- Amuse Bouche for Political Junkies, RECOMMENDED Chicago best play pick, Thru October 19, 2019
They come in one by one—these talented actors charged with the nearly impossible task of getting us to see them as the President that they play.
After the Secret Service agent (Denzel Tsopnang) does a sweep of the room--including checking for recording devices under tables that we later are reminded were so key to Nixon’s demise-- first comes Ford. Tom McElroy in some ways has the most difficult role and in other ways the easiest, in this writer’s view. He is Gerald Ford--- tall and large like his real-life character. He is amiable and fighting the need for a drink that some of us might have thought was only a problem for his wife. Because Ford’s tenure as President was so short, many in the heavily gray-haired audience probably can’t immediately recall with granular detail just how he spoke and acted.
When Martin L. Herault as Jimmy Carter strode in, there was an audible gasp from the audience—his real-world person favoring Carter so! The smile, the accent—OMG! he’s so real, was the thought.
Then came John Carter Brown as H.W. Bush, looking more like Dana Carvey perhaps until somewhere along the line – his tilt of head, his affable smile, or je ne sais quoi- OMG! he’s so real too.
Shorter than the real-world “40”, as all the other Presidents --38 (Ford), 39 (Carter), 41 (Bush), and 42 (Clinton) dub him—– when James Leaming arrives as Ronald Reagan there was that same muffled gasp as when Carter strode in. Here though, it is Leaming’s so Reaganesque gestures, posture and manner of speech that just levels one with amazement, at least this writer.
Perhaps Stephen Spencer as Clinton has the hardest role. First consider the tough acts he has to follow. More though, 42’s TV presence has been so much more recent. Spencer also has to overcome his short stature – which this writer couldn’t help but notice the production team had made all the harder by outfitting Spencer in a too large suit. All these obstacles noted, you too will likely find yourself almost shocked as the action progresses by how this actor too has distilled the essence of Clinton.
None of these actors are giving us the kind of impersonations you take for granted from a Colbert or other Second City alumn. It strikes this writer though, that they somehow go much deeper, imagining the affect each would have when discussing x, y, or z topic at hand. Their performances are designed to amaze --and they do!
That they go beyond impersonations and into character is facilitated by the vehicle of Rick Cleveland’s script—a thought experiment in imagining what these five living Presidents talked about as they awaited the ceremony at Nixon’s funeral. History buffs will find delight in almost every line that recalls historic details forgotten or glossed over. The story doesn’t excite hackles of concern that history is being rewritten to suit the times or attitude of the playwright. More, it comes off as part civic lesson and part exploration of what makes these keepers of the nuclear codes tick. It’s not a deep dive, but more an enticing invitation to re-read our history books for a longer chew.
That said, if you too are a diehard House of Cards or West Wing junkie – two of the more high profile gigs that writer Cleveland has landed-- you might find this clinging to historic accuracy as borderline burden on the script perhaps not allowing the drama of power that inherently defines all of these men- then, now, always. If you want drama and accuracy, watch Frost/Nixon perhaps.
If you are a political junkie or history buff, Five Presidents is a top pick for a theater night out, especially if you were alive and sentient during the Watergate era.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Written by:Rick Cleveland
Directed by:Marty Higginbotham
Thru October 19, 2019
Saturdays:3:00pm & 7:30pm
1225 W. Belmont Ave.
John Carter Brown (George H.W. Bush), James Leaming (Ronald Reagan), Martin L’Herault (Jimmy Carter), Tom McElroy (Gerald Ford), Stephen Spencer (Bill Clinton), and Denzel Tsopnang (Agent Kirby)
Grant Sabin (scenic design), Alexander Ridgers (lighting design), Michael Alan Stein (costume designer), Warren Levon (sound design), Mary O’Dowd (props design), and Shandee Vaughan (stage & production manager)