Hail to the actual chiefs: Crackerjack cast powers Steppenwolf's 'POTUS'
“POTUS” — ★ ★ ★ ½
“POTUS: or, Behind Every Great (expletive) are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” commenced with an unprintable word that likely shocked some Steppenwolf Theatre audience members attending Sunday's opening of Selina Fillinger's ferociously funny, expletive-laden political farce.
“That's the way you start a play,” joked a female friend referencing the word and its derivations, which Fillinger's characters use a total of 29 times during this 2022 feminist comedy about the highly competent women surrounding a profoundly incompetent president. By using the slur, the seven female characters reclaim it and strip it of its power, the same way other groups have re-appropriated words or phrases that have been used to disparage them. By the conclusion of this patriarchy-skewering play, the word is no longer an insult that demeans but a rallying cry that inspires.
The action centers on the women behind the fictional president. Unseen and unnamed, the titular dolt is a vulgarian who resembles a recent former president, although his womanizing also recalls another former president. And while his party isn't explicitly stated, references to Ronald Reagan and trickle-down economics point to a Republican administration.
Sandra Marquez plays smart, resolute chief of staff Harriet. Assisted by savvy press secretary Jean (Karen Rodriguez), a spinmeister whose curses are especially colorful, Harriet tries to control the chaos unfolding at the White House during a day that begins with the president insulting his wife in front of Chinese diplomats. Also on the agenda is a nuclear nonproliferation discussion with U.S. allies, a gubernatorial endorsement, a photo with disabled Iraq War veterans, and a gala honoring the Female Models of Leadership Council known as FML (an acronym whose social media meaning applies to every one of Fillinger's characters).
The White House team also includes timid Stephanie (the very funny Caroline Neff), the president's personal secretary who's fluent in five languages but is described as a “menopausal toddler.”
On the home front, Karen Aldridge brings an air of regal sophistication to first lady Margaret, a woman more accomplished than her husband and who serves as the calm in the middle of an escalating storm. Chloe Baldwin plays the president's farm girl mistress who's more astute than she appears, and Meighan Gerachis, who nearly steals the show thanks to her stellar comic timing as Bernadette, is the president's drug-dealing, ex-con sister who's fishing for a presidential pardon.
Rounding out this effective group of enablers is journalist and newly single mom Chris (Celeste M. Cooper), who needs a big story to fend off her younger male colleagues who “out-tweet” and “out-text” her and are angling for her job.
For the record, it's Cooper's righteously indignant reporter who calls out these women whose loyalty to an inept man not only endangers the nation but also perpetuates their own oppression.
“He's the pyromaniac, but you gave him kindling, you gave him matches,” exclaims Cooper's Chris in a magnificently delivered condemnation late in the play. “You figured he'd burn his fingers and learn his lesson. Well, he didn't and now the whole (expletive) world is on fire.”
Profanities propel much of the humor in “POTUS,” whose first act exceeds the overly indulgent, self-conscious second act.
The action unfolds in a West Wing suggested by designer Regina Garcia, whose efficient, understated sets glide smoothly across the stage.
Director Audrey Francis' fast, fearless production has the zaniness farce demands (the visual gags are big and bold) and the glimmer of truth and the pathos that makes us care about these women, who, like so many others, deserve more than they have.
Francis' staging is often clever, especially her use of Steppenwolf's rotating stage during scenes between Marquez's Harriet (striding confidently in flats) and Rodriguez's Jean (teetering on sky-high heels) reminiscent of the walk-and-talk scenes popularized by shows like “The West Wing,” whose rapid-fire dialogue Fillinger employs.
But Francis' not-so-secret weapon is her crackerjack cast. All are talented comedic actors, but Marquez and Rodriguez make an especially tight comic duo. Their scenes together hum like the well-tuned engine required to power this “POTUS.”
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Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 10. Also, 2 p.m. Nov. 22. No 7:30 p.m. performances Nov. 22, 23 or 28
Running time: About 1 hour 45 minutes, with intermission
Parking: $15 in the Steppenwolf parking lot; limited street parking
Rating: For adults, includes strong language that may offend some audience members, mature themes, sexual references