Hail to the Chiefs 

43 Plays for 43 Presidents is a refreshing and funny historical romp.

Pop quiz: Which president caught pneumonia because he delivered his endless inaugural speech without coat or hat and died a month later? What was Ulysses S. Grant's real first name? Which president really wanted to be chief justice of the Supreme Court? Who was the first American president with a Ph.D?

Got 'em all? No, I wasn't paying that much attention in school either. But I might have if this stuff — and a great many other important bits of American history — had been presented half as engagingly as the rowdy 43 Plays for 43 Presidents. " A giddy romp through our electoral history, 43 Plays was written by Chicago's Neo-Futurists and is now seeing its West Coast premiere at LaVal's, courtesy of Oakland's Rough and Tumble.

Like Chester Arthur (POTUS #21), Rough and Tumble isn't that well known, but it's been around since 1994, dedicating itself to "the performance and preservation of comedy," smart stuff like Vonnegut, Parker, Perelman, Ionesco, Nikolai Erdman, as well as pieces of its own. Most of its fully staged work has been produced in San Francisco, and it's been doing short runs of staged readings or script-in-hand productions there, here, and in Ukiah. In 2005, the company moved to the Temescal Arts Center, quietly perking along with Ben Jonson and Voltaire.

Here's what happens when Rough and Tumble puts down its scripts: Five actors in white shirts and black pants take turns being president by handing around or wrestling for an oversize suit jacket with an American flag sewn, targetlike, to the back. Even the way the jacket moves from actor to actor is a clue to the history involved. At one point it's draped not over a person, but a television in a gracefully handled reference to the Kennedy presidency; at the other emotional extreme, the jacket barely survives the first election in which the second Bush came to power. A red, white, and blue board labeled "Direct Quote" lights up whenever an actor delivers such, sometimes neatly interwoven with a little commentary. The actors sing, play the accordion, take volunteers, and do something unspeakable, literally, with a loaf of Wonder Bread. Ben Franklin roasts Thomas Jefferson, actor Stewart Evan Smith gives us Ulysses Grant as geek turned Rambo, the actors chew on each other's legs, and each segment is different, witty, and concise.

The Clinton segment, "How the Left Was Lost," is a good example of how aspects of each presidency may not have been clear at the time, obscured as they were by politics and popular sentiment. Some of the good guys weren't really good, and some of the "bad" ones did worthy things. As Arwen Anderson cheerfully sings in "One Nixon, Underdog," Tricky Dick created the EPA and went to China. Of course, while she's singing, the other actors are fanning out to steal purses from members of the audience.

Some of the good guys were good according to a standard that has changed dramatically in the intervening years, such as William Henry Harrison making his name as an Indian killer, a scene strikingly played by Louise Chegwidden with a butcher knife and a pack of hapless balloons.

The sections that you would expect to be somber — Lincoln and Kennedy, for instance — are. The Lincoln play is heartbreaking, composed as it is of overlapping litanies: the deaths of his family members, the battlefields of the Civil War. But they're still creative and fresh, deftly executed and short on schmaltz. Norman Gee appears as two separate vice-presidents who must take the reins after an assassination. Sitting in the dark turning a light bulb on and off, he delivers the same speech about how such a catastrophe is like trying to wake from a nightmare. He also gets to bomb Japan in a moment so delicately understated you might miss it if you're not paying attention.

The cast had some minor stumbles on opening night, but there's a lot of information to master, and they deliver the facts without it ever getting dull and dry. The pratfalls help on that last, as well as music (both live and recorded) that either defines an era or carries a story. How many history lessons would introduce Gerald Ford to the strains of ABBA's "Dancing Queen"? Sure, Ford is barely in the ground, but after a couple weeks of hearing the man being praised for not being his predecessor, it's guiltily refreshing to watch Josh Pollock recap the other thing some of us remember about him with a groan-provoking string of pratfalls. Not that any of the recent presidents get a break, both Bush père and fils are surrounded by Bollywood-style dancers mocking their respective Gulf wars.

43 Plays ends with Chegwidden exhorting the audience to remember that we usually get the presidents we deserve as the other actors pass out voter registration cards. It will either reward every moment you spent paying attention in social studies class, or send you straight to Wikipedia to find out what everyone else is laughing about. It's like Schoolhouse Rock all grown up. Which is not to say it's a purely adult show; this would be an excellent outing for a high school or college history class. Who might, incidentally, already know the answers: Harrison, Hiram, Taft, Wilson.


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