This was my third Theatre Pro Rata show and they have yet to disappoint me. They seem to specialize in productions that really focus on the roles of women in society offering at times some of the most thought provoking and challenging theatre in the Twin Cities. After Top Girls and Orlando last season, it was nice to see them continue in the vein of those plays of questioning gender roles throughout history. It was also nice to see them switch things up with a more comedic approach, it’s a testimony to their work that though lighter in tone, it still retains a sense of powerful social commentary. When you are doing 46 plays in two hours, you have to get in and out of each First Ladies story fairly quickly and humor has always been the best tool for identifying inequalities by identifying absurdities. The five person cast all share the lead, each playing multiple First Ladies as well as other supporting characters. It’s a mashup of every conceivable approach from comedic, musical, to the occasional straight dramatic scene. It’s like a sketch show, if one scene isn’t working for you, no worries, it’ll be over in three minutes or less and there will be another one you might enjoy more. To my mind of the 46 scenes or plays, there isn’t more than two or three where I ever thought “let’s move on to the next one now”. If you think think about that, Saturday Night Live would kill for that ratio.
Written by Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Sharon Greene, Chloe Johnston, Bilal Dardai, and Andy Bayiates the script is all over the place in the best possible way. Each scene is about the next First Lady chronologically, in some cases there are more than one woman that fits that role for a President. Filled with facts I didn’t know and assuming are true, it’s like a kaleidoscope of ignorance. As an audience member you are surprised at some of the information you learn, you are also confronted by the uncomfortable knowledge that you didn’t know more than half of the names of the 46 First Ladies. What it does, besides shaming you, is wet an appetite to learn more about some of these women. Let’s face it, being married to someone doesn’t make you interesting, but that’s all we ever hear about most of the First Ladies, at least prior to the 20th century with a couple of notable exceptions. The man they married shouldn’t be the definition of who they were, they had their own accomplishments, their own identities and it’s wonderful that this show gives us some hint as to who they were.
Shanan Custer Directs the show which must be a logistical nightmare. Honestly, half the show is transitions to the next scene with new props, costumes, and pieces of furniture having to be orchestrated. Amazingly, it never felt anything but fluid, there isn’t a single moment where the show stops while a chair is put in place or a costume change completed. The only thing more fun than watching the show would probably have been watching rehearsals. I’ve seen Custer perform and she’d have been right at home in this cast so I imagine the rehearsals to have been, well probably too much fun. You know to the point where there has to be a speech about getting down to work now because we open in a week and while we’ve all had a lot of fun rehearsing, we gotta buckle down and get this thing blocked. The cast is so game, I mean, how do you keep that many characters straight along with doubling as stage hands? The cast, comprised of local performers that I see throughout the year Christy Johnson, Heather Meyer, Anjeline Ramirez, Sif Oberon, and multi-talented Nissa Nordland Morgan. They are all wonderful, but I just have to say Morgan never stops surprising me. I know she can write, I know she is a fantastically funny character actor, but I didn’t know that she was such a good singer. My favorite moments involve her singing with her guitar. I don’t know if this is just a talent I hadn’t been exposed to before or what, but I definitely want a heads up next time she’s doing a set somewhere.
46 Plays For America’s First Ladies runs through October 16th for more information on this wonderfully eclectic play and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatreprorata.org/46-plays/
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