Review: Steppenwolf’s POTUS Follows a Manic Day in the Life of the Real White House VIPs—the Female Staff

This review and the final dialog are written by theater critics Nancy Bishop and Kim Campbell. 

POTUS is ostensibly a play about the President of the United States, in which the President never appears (well, perhaps a glimpse). Instead, the story takes a backstage view, told by his highly accomplished all-female White House staff doing their best to keep him out of trouble and save the world. Is the President a Republican or a Democrat? It’s never clear. The titular POTUS may or may not be a President whose name we might remember. The full title of the play makes its purpose clear: POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.

Selena Fillinger’s play, now on stage at Steppenwolf Theatre and directed by artistic director Audrey Francis, is very funny with rapid-fire gags, many of them vulgar, more than a little slapstick physical humor, and some similarities to Saturday Night Live or HBO’s Veep. Its strongest point is the cast featuring some brilliant Chicago talent. The rowdy opening night crowd clearly appreciated the humor—and you may too, if you’ve been looking for something to laugh at in this grim and brutal world. 

Despite the humor and madcap pace, POTUS suggests some serious themes on feminism, the patriarchy—and the eternal question posed several times during the performance: “Why isn’t she the President?”

Karen Rodriguez and Sandra Marquez. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Francis’ direction keeps track of the madness with brisk pacing and mile-a-minute surprises. The clever set design by Regina Garcia features an open stage with three doorways leading to places like the Oval Office, the press briefing room and the West Wing. (A ladies-room sink structure drops down for barf scenes.) A center-stage turntable is used once for a very funny peripatetic conversation and then is not used again. We would have liked to see more of those walking debates between chief of staff Harriet (Sandra Marquez) in sensible flats, and press secretary Jean (Karen Rodriguez), teetering around on stiletto heels. 

The other key cast members are presidential secretary Stephanie (Caroline Neff, countering her prim character’s career ambition with some zealous clowning and naked abandon); First Lady Margaret (Karen Aldridge as an aristocrat who aims for earthiness by donning Crocs for evening wear); the President’s sister Bernadette, recently released from prison for drug dealing (Meighan Gerachis); and Dusty, the President’s girlfriend (Chloe Baldwin). Journalist Chris (Celeste M. Cooper) monitors the news while occasionally pumping breast milk and calling her babysitter. And keep an eye on that marble bust of suffragist Alice Paul, which plays an important role.  

POTUS illuminates a day in the life of the White House staff, with the President scheduled for a meeting on China, a nonproliferation conference, and an important political endorsement.  Unfortunately, he starts the day by making a vulgar remark about his wife’s state of mind during a press conference. So the staff spends some of the day cleaning up that shit. 

Oh, and the president can’t sit down these days because of an abscess on his anus. Adjustments must be found so he can sit down during an evening gala honoring Female Models of Leadership. (Try that acronym if you will.)

 

Karen Aldridge and Chloe Baldwin (kneeling) with Sandra Marquez, Meighan Gerachis and Karen Rodriguez. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Garcia’s work on scenic design is greatly enhanced by Heather Gilbert’s lighting design. Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s essential sound design brings many offstage events alive as part of the onstage action. Raquel Adorno handles costume design. Laura D. Glenn is production stage manager.

Our favorite character in the show was Dusty, played by Chloe Baldwin. As the character with the lowest status among the seven women (a pregnant farmer girl), she proves herself to be just as capable of teamwork and of understanding the assignment as any of them. She doesn’t waste energy wondering what others think of her, and in spite of being pregnant with the President’s child, she has more integrity and concern for justice than the other characters who seem a bit more interested in holding on to what little power they have.

Caroline Neff as secretary Stephanie is also a standout in this madness. After swallowing a handful of the pills that Bernadette carries in a Tums bottle, Stephanie moves from staid clerical worker trying to be an empowered woman to a carefree sprite, stripping and dancing throughout the rest of the play. One of her props is a large green inner tube meant for POTUS’ bottom during the gala dinner. This was a change from the dramatic roles that Neff usually plays; some of our favorites have been Another Marriage, Seagull, Airline Highway, Linda Vista and Uncle Vanya

Playwright Fillinger is a recent Northwestern University graduate, now based in Los Angeles. She’s a performer and writer with several plays to her credit including Something CleanFaceless, The Collapse and The Armor Plays. She also writes for TV. POTUS was her Broadway debut in 2022. 

Local political note: We were happy to see that Mayor Brandon Johnson and first lady Stacie Johnson enjoy supporting the arts; they attended the opening night performance of POTUS.

POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive has been extended through December 17 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Running time is about 105 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20-$114 and you can buy them here or by calling the box office at 312-335-1650. 

DIALOG: Kim and Nancy talk about the play and its production style.

KIM: I’m thinking about the movie 9 to 5, which had a similar theme of women doing most of a man’s work and getting no credit for it, then revolting and seeking their own positions of respect. Does POTUS take the conversation to the next level, in your opinion?

NANCY: It certainly does, in the sense that these women are concerned about the survival of the world (even though POTUS storms out of the nonproliferation treaty conference). And of course, like the women in 9 to 5, they’re concerned about their own careers. The interesting insights here, however, are that we usually only know about what’s going in this (pardon the word) seat of power from the words of POTUS himself—and from news media reporting and interpretation of his words. Here we get insights from the highly educated and accomplished women who work with POTUS every day and whose work involves national and international issues. It’s sort of like the back-of-the-house view you get about a wealthy English family in a movie like Gosford Park or that English TV series Upstairs, Downstairs

KIM: POTUS uses farce to highlight systemic inequities towards women and women of color due to the patriarchy. What do you think about the approach of humor to help us acknowledge the flaws in our power structures? The audience certainly seemed into it!

NANCY: Absolutely! Humor means so much more than just making us laugh. It can minimize tension and bring people around to your point of view. It can help you connect with an audience or with colleagues in a meeting. Humor is a vastly underrated tool in business and politics and in everyday life. A professor at the Stanford Graduate School of business calls humor a Swiss army knife because of the many ways it can help in communications.

NANCY: You and I are different generations, Kim. I have very strong and painful memories about things I couldn’t do because I was a girl. I went to school in the ‘50s and started my career in the ‘60s. There were plenty of newspaper and corporate jobs that were restricted to men, even if the woman candidate was clearly smarter and more capable. I could tell you stories…. Do you have any memories like that about being restricted from doing things because they were only done by men?

KIM: Yes, as a Gen Xer, I can clearly recall having to fight for my right to wear jeans to school (!), and to play sports at school. But I think by the time I was growing up, the misogyny was less overt, due thankfully to the ground work of second-wave feminists, but nevertheless it was sneakily prevalent as always. I remember my mom pointedly telling me when I was little that I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be, and not to let anyone tell me otherwise. I remember thinking, “Well, if she says it like that it must mean there’ll be some road blocks.”

KIM: To me, knowing that not just the entire cast but also the crew was all women was an indication of commitment to meaningful change in a system. It’s kind of like they walked the walk in addition to talking the talk for POTUS. How do you think that decision may have affected the production as a whole?

NANCY: This is speculation but I’m guessing it helped create a sense of camaraderie among the cast much faster than would have happened in a more mixed cast. I was thinking of that when I saw ¡Bernarda! by Teatro Vista recently—the  cast was made up of seven Latinas and most of the crew was Latina too. I imagine that creative environment was warm and supportive from day one. One of my theater contacts told me that it was not only the similarities in ethnicity in that cast—they were after all from many different Latin American countries. It was also that director Wendy Mateo ran rehearsals humanely and that was fully supported by the rest of the theater leadership.

NANCY: The writing style in POTUS is very fast-paced, as we said, and almost seems like a variation on sit-com or sketch comedy writing. How do you think this writing style works to tell a story that may have serious implications?

KIM: I love it. I think the fast-paced dialog pairs well with the physical comedy present throughout the show, and in many ways reminds me of classical farces in ancient and medieval theater. I think the exaggerated characters and the ridiculous situations really appeal to our imaginations and make us laugh, but at the same time it’s delivering a powerful punch with the underlying message, which is “Why are women protecting men from their own messes? Is that what is holding us back from getting the chance to make our own mess?” And the answer seems to be written for us to interpret in the chaos of the plot that unfolds.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Third Coast Review Staff

Posts with the Third Coast Review Staff byline are written by a combination of writers, credited by section within the article.