It’s hard to pull off satire centered around stereotypes – recognizing, or even disrupting, those categories isn’t necessarily a funny or meaningful pursuit by itself. Selina Fillinger’s POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive smartly avoids many of the pitfalls of political comedy and resists the temptation to over-explain its social themes. Each of the titular seven women’s challenges and frustrations are clearly present throughout the play, and they ring true. But POTUS isn’t about teaching lessons. Instead, it takes unexpected twists and turns and warps its characters into surreal and chaotic versions of themselves.
At times POTUS is cathartic, but above all, it’s hilarious.
Virginia Rep’s production of POTUS – which is the play’s regional premiere after a Tony-nominated stint on Broadway – embraces the farce and allows fun and absurdity to permeate every aspect of the show. Under Dorothy Holland’s direction, POTUS has an irrepressible energy and movement that transforms the script into a collective experience of pure chaos. The story feels a little like a vessel at times for the full-send commitment of the cast, but it all works by merit of strong performances across the board.
Though POTUS starts with a shocking discussion about a political scandal, the excellent cast still manage to create levels of intensity and develop emotional dynamics within the story. There are virtually no peaceful moments during the events of the play, yet the performances are never one-note. Bree Ogaldez as reporter Chris and Denise Simone as chief of staff Harriet especially bring a sense of groundedness to their characters. That seriousness is warranted, as the two women experience perhaps the most legible forms of gender discrimination in the workplace over the course of the play. It makes their explosively angry scenes both consistent with the emotional logic of hitting a breaking point and simultaneously that much funnier when things devolve.
Elizabeth Byland is absolutely hilarious as Stephanie, giving what is likely the most committed physical performance I’ve seen onstage in Richmond. Even when Stephanie’s plot follows familiar beats, the way Byland embodies the character is so complete and unexpected and weird that it’s delightful and always entertaining. Liv Clayton brings a similarly production-defining kind of attitude to Dusty, making the character a really fun and strange standout. The two bring a liveliness to the production that demands the attention and energy of the entire room, and they also have two of the most memorable prop jokes in the show.
Staging and scenic design are utilized effectively to ramp up the intensity and movement of the story as it descends into chaos. The office set is especially effective, both in its thematic visual allusions to historical forms of political domination and in the way that it constrains space — when all seven women interact in that setting, it really underscores the chaos and claustrophobia of their situation. At other times, the movement of the characters is basically unrestricted, creating a totally different and equally impactful sense of urgency (and for an audience participation-phobe like me, amusement mixed with terror). The way that the cast and lighting elements designed by Steve Koehler interact with built-in elements of the November Theatre is a fun touch that pulls the venue itself into the performance’s off-kilter absurdity.
POTUS follows a long tradition of political farce, but Virginia Rep’s high-energy production is still full of surprises. It’s funny, weird, and an excellent showcase for the comedic talents of its talented cast.
POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive runs through October 1, 2023 at the November Theatre. Run time is one hour and fifty minutes, including intermission. Recommended for older teenagers and adults. For tickets and showtimes, visit va-rep.org.