Steppenwolf Theatre’s “POTUS” Or, Behind Every Successful Regional Theater is an Artistic Team Trying to Keep It Alive

“I hope audiences are reminded how awesome it feels to laugh with strangers.” – Director Audrey Francis on POTUS

POTUS is for lovers of Scandal or West Wing. Except the president is unsexy, unintuitive, and puppeteered by seven women on the verge of a panic attack. As the days get darker and colder than our politics, if you’re looking to laugh out loud, run to see Steppenwolf’s POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive by Selina Fillinger.

In POTUS, time moves how I’d imagine it does in the White House; fires burning everywhere, everyone busting their asses to put the fires out as quickly and quietly as possible. But after a while of watching the White House staff running around, the audience is able to see the treadmill under their feet; they are going fast, but they’re also going nowhere. Regina Garcia’s set design renders this concept literal. The “women in charge of the man in charge” are tasked with traversing over a rotating, circular floor in the middle of the stage. They’re running in place– in heels– trying their best to do their job well. In this world, a job well-executed means being invisible as one of the marionettists running the country via the president.

Directed by Co-Artistic Director Audrey Francis, POTUS is a really fun choice for Francis’ directorial debut. It’s wry and explicitly in line with Steppenwolf’s cultivated aesthetic. It’s funny and relentless; a vehicle for showcasing the powerhouse talents Chicago is so proud to claim. A good sign that the theater company aligns with the play, aside from the artistic director taking it on as a project, is the sheer amount of Steppenwolf ensemble members in the cast. 

(Front, l to r) Ensemble member Caroline Neff and Karen Aldridge with (back) ensemble member Celeste M. Cooper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Fish-out-of-water Dusty– the only character who doesn’t work at the White House– is played by the only actor making their Steppenwolf debut with this production, Chloe Baldwin. Baldwin, like Dusty, stuck out on stage. Her eagerness shone through, and deepened the character she played. Baldwin was attentive, energetic, and didn’t miss a beat. Seasoned veteran of the Steppenwolf stages (and ensemble member) Caroline Neff elicits raucous laughter from the audience with every entrance as Stephanie. 

Karen Aldridge (Margaret) balances the line between quirky collapse and complete composure as FLOTUS.  When she enters, all eyes turn to her. It takes only a moment for Aldridge to paint the full picture of a character’s life on stage. Aldridge is a beloved Chicago talent, and her performance in this production is not to be missed!

(front to back) Chloe Baldwin and ensemble member Sandra Marquez. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The whole ensemble blended together their talents and humors, creating a delicious concoction of comedic insanity. Jean (played by Karen Rodriguez) began the play composed, following the mentorship of Harriet (Sandra Marquez) and dousing PR fires stoked brilliantly and aggressively by reporter Chris (Celeste M. Cooper). Jean’s transformation from one room to another, and her completely different feelings and behaviors around each of her co-workers, is a testament to Rodriguez’s talents. Though her character was in a constant state of panic throughout the play, Rodriguez never reacted the same way twice. The President’s criminal (and gay) sister Bernadette (Meighan Gerachis) couldn’t get a word in edgewise without the audience breaking out into laughter. Harriet, the voice-of-reason, may have countered the silliness of the other, more heightened characters, however, her grounded disposition didn’t hold Marquez back from contributing comedically.

With POTUS, Fillinger seems to do the impossible. I generally find plays set in political realms painful to watch. Our real political climate is too painful to enjoy drama about, and too detrimental to joke about. It all feels too urgent, real, and existential. Fillinger sideswipes all of these pitfalls in lieu of a snappy, thrilling, if-you-know-you-know kind of play. POTUS hits the perfect balance between referential and made-up. The rules of the political world of the play were vague without being didactic, but specific enough to have something to laugh at. In a promotional interview for Steppenwolf, Audrey Francis states the hope that “people leave Steppenwolf with a healthy reminder that sometimes things are important, but not everything is serious.” The combination of Fillinger’s script and Francis’ direction sang in POTUS, making this hope a reality.

POTUS runs at Steppenwolf Theatre until December 10th (extended by popular demand!).

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Karen Aldridge– Margaret
Chloe Baldwin– Dusty
Celeste M. Cooper– Chris
Meighan Gerachis– Bernadette
Sandra Marquez– Harriet
Caroline Neff– Stephanie
Karen Rodriguez– Jean

Selina Fillinger– Playwright
Audrey Frances– Director
Regina Garcia– Scenic Design
Raquel Adorno– Costume Design
Heather Gilbert– Lighting Design
Pornchanok Kanchanabanca– Sound Design and Original Music
Almanya Narula– Fight Choreographer
Maya Vinice Prentiss– Intimacy Choreographer
Kate DeVore– Vocal Coach
Patrick Zakem– Creative Producer
Tom Pearl– Producing Director
JC Clementz, CSA– Casting
Laura D. Glenn– Production Stage Manager
Kathleen Barrett– Assistant Stage Manager

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