Feature Review: Charlotte Conservatory Theatre’s POTUS Transfers to Cain Center
By Perry Tannenbaum
After the morning press conference, there’s China, an international meeting on nuclear proliferation, followed by a photo op with blinded-and-maimed Iraq War vets, and a much-anticipated endorsement of a gubernatorial candidate somewhere out in the Midwest. Pretty typical day at the White House.
But in Selina Fillinger’s frenetic presidential comedy, POTUS, neither the man in the Oval Office nor the playwright’s viewpoint is typical. Fillinger made that clear in her subtitle, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. At opening night of Charlotte Conservatory Theatre’s production of this romp, seven frantic women directed by Stephen Kaliski had their audience laughing nearly non-stop at Booth Playhouse.
It was the second consecutive Conservatory production that reminded many of us of the last resident company at the Booth, Charlotte Repertory Theatre, which expired way back in 2005. Members of Actors Equity are back in the mix, along with members of Stage Directors and Choreographers behind the scenes. Other professional groups are involved, including the local IATSE union and United Scenic Artists. Kaliski and Conservatory Theatre co-founder Marla Brown also harbor the long-term ambition of ascending to the highest rung of regional companies and becoming Charlotte’s first LORT (League of Resident Theatres) company since Rep’s demise.
Kaliski wasn’t behind the scenes for Conservatory’s debut at the Booth last August. No, he was onstage as a rather charismatic devil named Scratch in a surprisingly amorous faceoff with Elizabeth Sawyer. Jen Silverman’s Witch was the playwright’s fresh 2018 spin on The Witch of Edmonton, first staged in 1621, and Sawyer was a dramatization of a real-life woman burned for witchcraft earlier that same year. Brown wasn’t onstage in that “then-ish” setting, but her inclination toward making Conservatory a classics-flavored company definitely was.
With POTUS, it’s Brown who is taking the stage – nearly assuming the title role late in Act 2 as she prepares to take the place of her lookalike brother, the Prez, at a posh speaking engagement. Speaking with Brown for this story, I opined that the recent POTUS she most closely resembled was The Donald. Nope, she countered, it was Obama.
You can decide who’s right. For the Conservatory Theatre production, after closing at the Booth several weeks ago, reopens at the new Cain Center in Cornelius for another three-performance run on April 26.
Until her shocking transformation into formalwear, Brown as the drug-dealing presidential sib Bernadette looked to me like a punkish Rob Roy on the skids. Here Brown and I are in much closer agreement, since she has proclaimed, “I got that role because I can rock shorts that are hideous.”
Yet Brown’s shorts may not be the most bizarre or hideous thing we saw at the Booth in POTUS. Iris DeWitt as Chris, a beat reporter fishing for a scoop, multitasked by sporting a pair of noisy breast pumps that reminded me of football fan craziness, helmets retooled to hold beer cans emptying into drinking straws. Katy Shepherd as presidential secretary Stephanie may be the queen oddball. After unwittingly sampling an overdose of Bernadette’s merchandise, Steph goes so far off the rails that, by intermission, she’s prancing around the West Wing dreamily with a pink swimming pool floating around her waist.
The zany, comical mayhem that brings POTUS to the end of Act 1, with all seven women in action and Chris somehow stealing focus from the ever-twirling-and-spacey Stephanie, is the closest equivalent I’ve seen in many years to the explosive circus that engulfs the stage at the second intermission of George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You. And that fizzy moment was the only time in Fillingers’ comedy that I caught anything like a whiff of classical flavor.
Conservatory’s swerve from classicism has been both intentional and fortuitous in terms of POTUS coming here and moving up the road to Cornelius.
“We want to leave our options open in these early days,” Kaliski says, “so there was a consideration early on of, okay, we’ll always do something that has some sort of anchor in a classical story. Right now, the aesthetic we’re landing on is, you know, how can we be that company? The plays in New York that are either your non-touring Broadway shows or prestige Off-Broadway shows – we want to be the group that picks a lot of those off and brings them to Charlotte. And I think Actor’s Theatre filled this role.”
Yeah, it’s clear that the closure of Actor’s Theatre rocked this town – arguably harder than the shuttering of Rep, which left CAST (Carolina Actor’s Studio Theatre) and Actor’s Theatre in its wake. Now? We’ve devolved into a bunch of small black box theatre outfits, counterbalanced by the bigger BNS Productions. They all produce consistently fine work, but none of them can be called “that company.”
Actor’s and CAST hardly messed with the classics at all. BNS, when it isn’t producing works by its founder, Rory Sheriff, mostly does the classics by August Wilson. So there’s definitely a niche for a major company in Charlotte that plans to straddle recent hits and the classics. Or any major LORT company at all, since we’re probably the largest US market without one.
Even in its beginnings, Conservatory is flipping the script written by Queen City theatre behemoths that perished in the past. Whether suddenly or gradually, Rep, CAST, and Actor’s all disgorged their founders through actions of their boards of directors, who then proceeded to dissolve their companies – without alerting the public that they were in crisis, let alone appealing for aid.
Having founded The Warehouse up in Cornelius in 2009, Brown and her board have not liquidated her brainchild. Utilizing Warehouse’s non-profit 501c3 credentials, they have rebranded as Charlotte Conservatory, upsized their mission and ambition, and – here’s a twist – amicably disbanded their board.
“I love that space very much,” Brown still says of The Warehouse. “But I also knew that after ten years, if I continued to produce there, I would regret it. Because Charlotte has seen such a de-evolution of theatre since Rep’s demise, and such a de-evolution of our talent pool. Anybody who works on a professional level or who understands the craft either has to do it for very little money or they have to teach and then do it at theaters, other LORT companies at other cities, or they work for Children’s Theatre only.”
In the wake of COVID, which gave theatre companies plenty of time to pause and reflect; and in the wake of We See You, White Theatre, a scathing BIPOC indictment of American theatre companies’ lack of inclusivity; Conservatory Theatre is intent on being more open-ended – and more open-minded – as it continues to take shape.
Neither cliques nor permanent positions have formed as Conservatory blazes its new path.
“We didn’t start with, okay, here’s our artistic director and the managing director, and here’s our director of development, etc., etc.,” Kaliski explains. “We didn’t start with a typical organizational structure. We were kind of thinking, all right, we’re a collective in this room together, and we’re going to take it project by project to start, and each project can have its own set of showrunners, if you will, kind of like a TV show. And they’ll be in charge of that, and then we’ll kind of have a different group of showrunners or a different producing pod for the next one.”
That kind of inclusivity has allowed Kaliski and Brown to reach out, in Conservatory’s formative phase, to Matt Cosper, who still cranks out XOXO productions, and playwright/actor/director Brian Daye, a former member of the Warehouse board. Nor is this core group and others limiting their horizons to the Booth Playhouse and the Cain Center, especially since Conservatory doesn’t have the kind of sweetheart rental deal the would come with official residency at either venue.
Mint Museum, the Stage Door, and the new Parr Center are all in play for future reconnoitering and producing, along with whatever the epic renovation of Uptown’s Carolina Theatre winds up offering. Meanwhile at Cain Center, whose stage does not sport a fly loft, there’s a mutual feeling-out process as both newbie organizations find their bearings.
Both Brown and Kaliski were surprised and delighted that rights to perform POTUS became available so soon after the Broadway production closed last August. Many in their circle presumed there might be a national tour in the offing. But POTUS doesn’t make the most discreet or decorous entrance for a Cornelius audience, that’s for sure.
Brown had some trepidations when she approached Cain director Justin Dionne. “Okay, Justin,” she remembers thinking, “you understand that the first word is the C word. And I know you don’t want people coming and going, ‘This is not what we built the Cain center for.’” She squeals in a high falsetto, half-relishing this possibility.
Yes, before Fillinger’s action even begins, POTUS has used this word at his morning presser – in describing the First Lady, no less. In her presence. He doesn’t know she’s there, due to a couple of additional plot points – one, we’ll learn, involving anal sex – so he explains her absence by saying, “She’s having a cunty morning.”
So Valerie Thames as chief of staff Harriet opens the show by storming onstage and exclaiming the offending adjective in its root form. Instantly radiating dignity, morality, and competence – qualities that will not be attributed to POTUS – Thames authoritatively dumps this crisis of the day in Jean’s relatively cool hands. Slim and conceivably serene, Jennifer Adams as POTUS’s beleaguered press secretary wastes little time in convincing us that poor Jean likely holds the most combustible burnout position in the West Wing.
Harriet and Jean are the women most seriously invested in keeping the dumbass alive and the most adept at getting the job done. This often involves prodding Stephanie, quite intelligent beneath her scared-rabbit exterior, into action. Bernadette, ankle monitor on her leg, is also very interested in keeping her brother alive, if for no other reason than her nefarious enterprises will ultimately require a presidential pardon.
“Harriet,” Jean memorably informs Bernadette, “is the number one reason this country continues to function.” By this time, Jean has perpetrated a monumental screw-up of her own.
Wielding a blue slushy, Sarah Molloy makes an entrance as Dusty that rivals Harriet’s, rushing across the stage to vomit into a trashcan. Not the subtlest indication you’ll ever see that somebody is pregnant. Yet the West Wing brain trust struggles to put two and together. Bernadette sees it all rather quickly, though. You need to be truly family to understand POTUS.
Iesha Nyree as The First Lady sizes up Dusty nearly as quickly as his sister-in-law. Assailed by presidential insult and infidelity, Margaret is also complicit and invested in her dumbass husband’s political machinations. Never playing a victim card, Nyree makes Margaret formidable and conflicted. But while Fillinger flips the meaning of her subtitle upside down, hinting that impulsiveness and incompetence aren’t confined to POTUS or his gender, she spreads the inner conflict around: lurking among these ladies are two lesbians who will consider rekindling the old flames that once blazed secretly on the campaign trail.
“At least three of the characters must be women of color,” Fillinger prescribed in her script. “Actors can be cis or trans. Age is flexible. Beauty is subjective. So long as they’re fast, fierce, and fucking hilarious.”
Kaliski, Brown, and Charlotte Conservatory Theatre checked all of those boxes at the Booth. True, POTUS is a bit lightweight and more than a little over-the-top. But if you missed it in Charlotte, it’s worth the trip to follow this production up to the new Cain Center. Seeing how it all goes over with the Cornelius crowd might be an extra treat.