When thinking about how far the fight for women’s rights has come, how much has been accomplished, and how many glass ceilings have been shattered over the course of the past 100 years, certainly an impressive list of checkmarks have accumulated in the equality column. There is, however, one very consequential glass ceiling that has yet to be shattered. Nearly…but not quite.
…the cast they’ve assembled handles the dialogue quite exquisitely.…You truly have to experience it firsthand to understand the depth and dimension that the production values achieve on this one.
This seems to be the overriding message of Selina Fillinger’s “Potus; Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.” The Tony Award-nominated show takes audiences deep into the heart of a White House they’ve probably never envisioned. This is a West Wing firmly in the grip of the women surrounding POTUS. There’s Harriet (Naomi Jacobson), a very beleaguered Chief of Staff. Jean (Natalya Lynette Rathnam), the sharp-witted and anxiety-riddled Press Secretary. Margaret (Felicia Curry), the newly “earthy” First Lady who must contend with the “dumbass” president’s philandering. One of the recipients of said philandering, Dusty (Sarah-Anne Martinez), pays an impromptu visit to the White House, much to the chagrin of Stephanie (Megan Hill), POTUS’s secretary, who struggles to authentically inhabit the power stances she practices in time to her “b***h playlist.” White House reporter, Chris (Yesenia Iglesias), is a new mom who not only contends with the head-scratching antics of a frazzled White House, but also a media outlet that prioritizes her younger, male counterparts. Finally, there is the president’s sister, Bernadette (Kelly McAndrew), just out of prison thanks to a pardon.
This ensemble cast of women who’ve been pushed to their limits (and beyond) is very much a powder keg of feminist energy just waiting to explode and disrupt EVERYTHING. In their collective explosion, however, they still manage to be rather methodical, quick-thinking, and infinitely entertaining. The initial cause these characters must rally around is a presidential slip-not-really-slip of the tongue in which he very publicly uses a word that just shouldn’t ever be used to refer to a woman, much less one’s wife. From there—watch out.
Fillinger’s feminist farce leans heavily on wordplay. The quickness and intuitiveness with which this cast delivers that wordplay is impressive indeed. The barbs, jokes and sarcasm are nonstop. The writing is deliciously witty and cleverly provocative. Of course, without the right delivery said jokes and sarcasm would ultimately fall flat. Arena Stage need not worry on that front, as the cast they’ve assembled handles the dialogue quite exquisitely. It really is in some ways like witnessing a marathon—the baton passed with perfect timing from one performer to the next. Each of the women does her own heavy lifting so it is nearly impossible to single out any one cast member. Following the show, you’re not sure that these women in fact even exist outside of this universe, outside the bonds they’ve created within the world of this play.
Jacobson is Harriet. Her embodiment of this put-upon, and yet still ostensibly devoted, Chief of Staff is one of the most believable performances I have had the privilege of watching. As Jean, Rathnam is the glue that holds everything together, and yet her emotional tenuousness is right there beneath the surface. The role of the First Lady verges on a caricature, but it is the little details and glimpses of vulnerability we see in Curry’s performance that make this a wonderfully three-dimensional interpretation. Another character who could easily spiral into stereotype territory is Dusty, the farmer’s daughter from Iowa who is pregnant with the president’s baby. Martinez, though, deftly displays the unexpected sides of Dusty. As the rebellious black sheep Bernadette, McAndrew playfully embraces an iteration of butch lesbian that is laugh-out-loud comical without being offensive. While Iglesias as Chris presents perhaps the least stereotypical character as she convincingly walks that line between her ideals, her need to hang on to her job, and her struggle to adapt to motherhood. The performer here who is probably the most exposed (literally) is Hill. She is a revelation in this performance. Let’s just say, I will never look at an inner tube in quite the same way again.
Given how many moving pieces there are in this production, it quickly could have devolved into theatrical chaos. Yet, director Margot Bordelon figures out exactly how to transform any such chaos into an evening of endless entertainment. Arena Stage generally isn’t afraid to take risks when it comes to staging plays in less-than-traditional ways and POTUS is no exception. The Fichandler Stage’s theatre-in-the-round setup lends itself incredibly well to thinking outside the box in terms of how to present this play. Coming together to make those risks pay off tenfold is one cutting-edge creative team: Reid Thompson (Set Design), Marika Kent (Lighting Design), Sinan Refik Zafar (Music/Sound), and Ivania Stack (Costume Design). You truly have to experience it firsthand to understand the depth and dimension that the production values achieve on this one.
Arena’s production of “POTUS” is one that I will not soon forget. Elements of farce aside, the message is deep and it is resonant. To paraphrase Harriet, a “new” dawn is coming.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Mature themes and language.
“POTUS” runs through November 12, 2023 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC 20024. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.