Monday, February 9, 2015

reviews - FIVE PRESIDENTS - Arizona Theatre Company

Brit Whittle, Mark Jacoby, Steve Sheridan, Martin L’Herault and Jeff Steitzer
(photo: Tim Fuller)
For more information on this production, that runs through February 22nd, click here.

 "When five living presidents meet at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California – they’re there, waiting to start the funeral of Richard Nixon – one can only imagine what was discussed behind closed doors by the surviving members of the most exclusive club in the world.  In the new Arizona Theatre Company production written by Rick Cleveland called Five Presidents, that’s exactly what happens.   Safely knowing that no one can hear them, the five men seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk openly and honestly about whatever springs to mind. It’s not so much that the lines are anywhere close to, say, a Neil Simon zinger, it’s just that being aware of the names being dropped, their history and who it is saying the line, somehow the laughs come louder. But conversations turn darker, particularly when the world leaders talk of the blood on their hands and the men who died when obeying their president’s difficult commands. Under Mark Clements’ direction, Rick Cleveland’s new play is a good one, but not a great one.  There’s an undeniable sense of fascination watching these famous and powerful men discuss world matters on a private, human level even if they’re all the words of a writer’s imagination.  What is said in that conference room stays in that conference room, but what is said isn’t necessarily a great reveal – you don’t leave the theatre pondering on something you’ve never thought of before – but there’s pleasure to be had while speculating for ninety entertaining minutes what might be discussed in the company of men whose guards, for once in their lives, are fully down." -David Appleford, Valley Screen and Stage (click here to read the complete review)

"Emmy winner Rick Cleveland has made a career of writing intense TV dramas centered on politics. His experience definitely prepared him to write the superb Five Presidents... has a crackerjack cast and assured direction that make for an exceptionally entertaining 90 minutes of high powered drama peppered with a fine share of comic moments.  Cleveland has crafted a witty, humorous, emotional, and exceptional piece of drama.  The cast is outstanding, with each man echoing the idea and presence of each famous president without resorting to full on impressions. Cleveland captures the cadence, tone and language of each man in his script, and, along with director Mark Clements providing skilled direction, the five men display gestures and movements to bring these famous people to vibrant life.  While the play is mainly an ensemble piece, the role of Ford is at the center, as Cleveland uses the idea of Ford deciding not to deliver Nixon's eulogy as the main plot device and discussion topic throughout the meeting of the five men. Jeff Steitzer is extremely confident and direct in his portrayal of Ford. Mark Jacoby and Brit Whittle as Bush and Clinton get most of the heated exchanges in the play, with Jacoby expertly portraying the man who is still seething from his loss to Clinton in the last election.  Martin L'Herault gives Carter a gentle, quiet demeanor, with Cleveland using him as one of the main keepers of peace in the room; but when Carter and Bush go at it, over Carter writing letters to the heads of the coalition members in his opposition to Bush and Desert Storm, L'Herault has no problem holding his own when the fireworks fly. At this time in his life Ronald Reagan was experiencing the early signs of Alzheimer's and Steve Sheridan does a fine job of showing us the confusion and frustration that Reagan experienced. While there are plenty of heated debates and comical touches, Cleveland also interjects the deep sense of care, respect, and compassion that the men have for each other. Clements' direction allows the play to unfold naturally over real time. His pacing lets the serious moments resonate while the comic ones give an appropriate break in the action.   Five Presidents allows us to be the fly on the wall at a meeting of five of the most important men in the world. With multi-layered and nuanced performances and sure-footed direction combined with Cleveland's excellent dialogue, ATC's production is an eye-opening experience." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

"Eavesdropping on five American presidents is an interesting goal of anyone enamored of U. S. history or who marvels at Presidential power.  And that’s exactly what you do in Five Presidents, Arizona Theatre Company’s exemplary world premiere production of Rick Cleveland’s fascinating new play.  The meeting provides a fascinating discussion that allows us to discover something of each man’s unique personality and character, how they handle a group situation, and insights into the intellectual capacity of each president. It provides perspectives on these men who led our nation, how some of their decisions were based on political expediency as opposed to knowledge, and how these men have the same prejudices many Americans possess.  The discussion is like one any group of Americans might enter into when they are with friends or associates.  We learn that these men didn’t necessarily like each other and we also learn some little known facts about each chief executive.  For example, it wasn’t just Bill Clinton who indulged in extra martial relations.  Much of the success of a play like Five Presidents rests with the actors playing the historical figures we know from television news footage.  And the five actors ATC found are marvelous.  Each captures the verbal and physical characteristics of the president they portray.  Mark Jacoby seems just a bit inhibited as George H. W. Bush, Martin L’Heraultis’ is a short and scrappy Carter, Steve Sheridan is a confident Reagan, Jeff Steitzer is a commanding Ford who leads this group of presidents effectively, and Brit Whittle is a relaxed Clinton. Five Presidents leaves you with new insights into how things occurred in each of these presidential terms and you’ll gain insights into each of these presidents’ personalities." -Chris Curcio, KBAQ (click here to read the complete review)

"Five Presidents, technically is a fantasy, in that it imagines a conversation that never took place. But (Rick) Cleveland's aim is to capture the essence of his subjects as they were. It doesn't exactly add up to epic drama, nor does it offer provocative commentary on American politics. There are moments when the play borders on the pious in its praise of public service, and there are others when it resembles a Wikipedia data-dump as the five presidents unconvincingly tick off facts for the benefit of the audience rather than the characters, who would all be perfectly well aware of the history.  For the most part, however, Cleveland delivers what he sets out to: an entertaining illusion of fly-on-the-wall access to a very exclusive club, a sort of presidential locker room where political titans spar, curse, toss back whisky and maybe, just maybe, reveal something of their souls. The most convincing impersonation is L'Herault's Carter, but all the actors succeed in re-creating familiar personas, from Reagan's cartoonish charm to Clinton's smarmy egotism. More importantly, each performer finds moments of fragility that let the audience into their circle of shared humanity.  It may be a fantasy, but in the current historical moment of strident division, it's a healthy and affirming one." -Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic (click here to read the complete review)

"In the case of Rick Cleveland's ingenious Five Presidents,... it's a delicious concept ~ to imagine their interactions ~ brought to life by the splendid performances of Jeff Steitzer as Gerald Ford, Martin L'Herault as Jimmy Carter, Steve Sheridan as Ronald Reagan, Mark Jacoby as George H. W. Bush, and Brit Whittle as the incumbent Bill Clinton. Originally commissioned by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the one-act play, directed by Mark Clements, is being presented as a co-production with Arizona Theatre Company, and it is an undeniable hit.  Mr. Cleveland's extensive and meticulous research of the historical records has flowered into a script that delivers insights and revelations about each man and casts them, when all is said and done, as mere mortals vaulted for a brief moment in time to the most powerful position in the world. What haunts this room is the indelible imprint of the man whom no one wishes to eulogize but who has left an indelible imprint on the Presidency.  The performances of the five are not impersonations; they are not intended to be. Thankfully, they manage to convey the more notable attributes of their characters, enhanced by Lauren Wilde's splendid make-up design, while avoiding caricature." -Herbert Paine, Broadway World (click here to read the complete review)

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