There are few plays whose first word (and entire scene, really) could be “cunt” and pull it off. But POTUS: Or Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive succeeds, perfectly balancing colorful comedy and cultural critique.
Director Margot Bordelon has brought Selina Fillinger’s riotous comedy to the Arena Stage, much to the delight of D.C. residents like myself. While POTUS had a relatively successful Broadway debut last year, the play is built to flourish in Washington, D.C.—only in the capital would a line about access to affordable and safe abortions being healthcare receive wild applause.
The play finds its anchor in its seven-woman ensemble, a mishmash of female powerhouses with larger-than-life personalities. The dominant commonality between the characters is their passion—in the words of Jean, “They’re all intense.”
Each woman is an amalgamation of different people from previous White Houses and those yet to come, as the playbill notes. The president himself has the worst traits of several past leaders—including a sex scandal with mistress Dusty (Sarah-Anne Martinez) and an inability to keep his mouth shut—but he’s not anyone in particular, Martinez notes. “We’ve made up our own president,” she said in an interview with the Voice, “We call him Mitch. Mitch Crawford.”
While his presence shapes the play’s plot, the president never appears onstage—none of the male characters do. Yet, like a spector, their influence remains pervasive. As women working in and around the White House, they struggle to overcompensate for the problems the president creates. From an anal abscess to international snafus, the responsibility to fix these men’s messes falls squarely on the women’s shoulders.
The play’s central question derives from the disparity between these competent (arguably over-qualified) women and the hot mess of a president they clean up for: “Why isn’t she president?”
“All of the things we have been fed by the patriarchy about the possibility of women being worse leaders than men because they’re emotional or because of this or because of that—that still exists in our world, just in a different way,” Martinez said.
The play shines in its ability to tackle these pressing societal problems with humor. The jokes point out the sheer ridiculousness of the president’s incompetence, prompting us to laugh even when characters might feel like screaming. As press secretary Jean (Natalya Lynette Rathnam) receives update after update on the president’s blunders, the audience empathizes, rewarding her frustration with laughs. Instead of bundling this anger, the play transforms female rage into a humorous spectacle, which has the effect of making the audience feel closer to the characters and their situations. It doesn’t dilute the anger nor mock it—it merely makes it more palatable and cathartic.
“Comedy is a way people are brought together laughing in community,” Martinez said. “It’s just an easier way for people who would usually hate having these kinds of conversations to listen to the points that are being made, because they’re laughing along.”
POTUS’s dialogue is crass and in-your-face, mirroring the reactionary speech we often naturally resort to when faced with similarly frustrating moments in our own lives. Furthermore, with a diverse, all-female cast, it’s easy to see yourself in one or all of the characters and sympathize with their fury. We haven’t all been the chief of staff like Harriet (Naomi Jacobson), but we’ve all had to take responsibility for something that wasn’t our fault.
While Martinez credits the play’s humor to the situations these women find themselves in, the cast’s comedic chops play a crucial part in the effectiveness of these moments. While it’s hard to single out any one performance, Jacobson’s Harriett has a hilariously dry wit in one of the funniest roles of her fabled career—her ability to pivot from questions about what “FML” means to provoking statements about responsibility is stunning. In general, the fast-paced delivery of lines allows each joke to hit home without overstaying their welcome, from quippy lines about nuclear war polling badly with women to the First Lady’s obsession with being “earthy.”
Martinez describes the play as a “joke a minute,” but instead of overwhelming the audience, the rapid back-and-forth between the characters flows naturally. Despite its seemingly unstudied nature, Martinez emphasized how each witty remark was carefully rehearsed down to the timing between lines; it’s where “alchemy and the comedy of theater came together,” she said. But it’s not the lines alone that stand out.
Even when silent, the characters’ personalities speak volumes thanks to the subtleties of each actress’ performance. Megan Hill’s Stephanie, an anxious assistant, is constantly in motion, either rocking back and forth from the unknown substance she consumed or power posing in an attempt to gain confidence. Thanks to Natalya Lynette Rathnam’s brilliantly expressive faces, Jean’s reactions match the audience’s—a blend of slightly over-the-top confusion and exasperation.
The climax of the play is undoubtedly its most physical, however. A well-choreographed fight scene, designed by fight and intimacy coach Sierra Young, thrusts the characters’ dysfunctional relationships into the spotlight. The lights flicker as a mad scramble ensues, the cherry on top for an already-chaotic cast. First Lady Margaret, played by Felicia Curry, scrambles around in Crocs doing Taekwondo as the president’s butch sister-in-law and international criminal Bernadette, played by Kelly McAndrew, pockets valuables from the White House. As the lights flicker, the scene’s chaos unravels like snapshots, each showcasing a little bit more of the characters’ personalities.
Reid Thompson’s set, a series of clear doors and hanging contraptions that rise and fall as needed, compliments Fillinger’s dramatic script and heightens the joyful chaos of the performances. As desks and bathrooms move up and down, there’s a real presidential feel despite the chaos of the performance. The minimal set lets the characters’ personalities shine through, and, as benefits many performances on the unusually-designed Fichandler Stage—with its audience surrounding the stage—the audience feels truly in the midst of things. POTUS expertly breaks the boundaries of the stage, as characters dash around in the audience and give speeches from the aisles.
Amidst its proclivity for play, POTUS also makes space for serious conversations. Martinez’s Dusty embodies the duality of the play, frequently alternating between absurdity and seriousness. As Dusty rapidly switches from conversations about blue raz slushies to critiques of reproductive justice in the next, it’s hard not to fall in love with every last layer her character has to offer.
The other characters in this absurd landscape are equally complex, ensuring that the story doesn’t focus unduly on male ineptness. For instance, first-time mom Chris (Yesenia Iglesias) balances motherhood and growing pressure from her editor to find the next big scoop. Trying to pump in various locations, Chris steals five minutes to herself after interviewing the First Lady and climbs into a dresser while the noise of a pump echoes loudly through the speakers. While the humor keeps the play light-hearted, POTUS is unafraid of tackling heavier topics such as lack of institutional support for mothers with impeccable tact.
Instead of being some idealized examples of female empowerment, the characters are all deeply flawed—and more compelling for it. Dusty’s (oft-blind) optimism in the face of adversity, Harriett’s (stubborn) drive and determination, and the First Lady’s (extreme) competence and authority make each woman slightly relatable and incredibly funny—the perfect combination of hot-mess and superstar.
Nevertheless, despite the women’s prowess, they’re still not president—the flaming dumpster fire is. Why? “They don’t want him, they’re just afraid of the alternative,” Bernadette said. “Us.”
POTUS is running at Arena Stage until Nov. 12; get your tickets here.