It’s difficult to describe the current political environment, which seems stranger than fiction. A former president of the United States faces 91 criminal counts in four separate indictments. Two civil cases are pending against him. He released a mug shot in which he appears to be trying to channel “Mob Boss” crossed with “Marvel Villain.” And he sits atop the Republican primary field by a huge margin.
How did we get here? And how are we supposed to cope with something so surreal? Sometimes, the answer is through laughter.
Playwright Selina Fillinger believed, like so many others, that Donald Trump’s chances of being elected president had tanked with the release of the infamous Access Hollywood video. She ruminated about putting down ideas that were floating in her brain “about his orbit of women … the ‘pussy-grabbing’ tape was the catalyst,” she said. “It brought me to the page. I was shocked by people’s response to it. How the news media tried to report on it without saying ‘pussy.’”
She began writing what became POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, which opens at Berkeley Rep on Sept. 20. But it took her two years to complete the play, and during that time, the world changed a lot. Trump was elected, “and it was white women who got him elected,” Fillinger said.
Her choice of narrative does not involve the onstage appearance of the POTUS in the title. Instead, it revolves around the women who band together one particular day to desperately try to do damage control after the president calls his wife a cunt in front of foreign diplomats and the press. Characters Chief of Staff Harriet and press secretary Jean must also cope with the arrivals and “contributions” of First Lady Margaret; Dusty, the president’s “dalliance”; the president’s ex-felon sister, Bernadette; Chris, a journalist pressing for a juicy story; and presidential secretary Stephanie, as they try to keep the episode from becoming a global crisis.
“I didn’t want to write a POTUS character,” Fillinger said. “I felt there was enough air time being given to people like that.” She was much more interested, she said, “in how we uphold the patriarchal systems.”
Yet from the beginning, she saw the play as a comedy, even a farce. “In farce, you build up all the blocks that you then have to knock down,” she said. She wrote the first act very quickly, while the second act took much longer. Even after it was completed, obstacles arose. “Regional theaters were nervous that the language might alienate their audiences,” Fillinger said.
Then New York producer Greg Nobile discovered the play and began pushing for a Broadway production—just as the pandemic hit. POTUS lay dormant for two years. Finally, Nobile brought in multi-award-winning director Susan Strohman and the two put together a star-studded cast. The play opened on Broadway in 2022 and garnered three Tony nominations.
Now, multiple regional theaters have POTUS productions in the works. But Fillinger is especially excited about the Berkeley Rep version, because she was born in Berkeley, where her parents lived for 17 years. She considers the city her second home and is excited to bring loved ones to see the show.
She has not made major changes to the script since its Broadway run. “A couple of tiny tweaks,” she said, but with different actors and sets, “it will look and feel really different.” She sits in on some rehearsals, although she tries not to hover. “I want to give people license to do it their way,” she said.
Director Annie Tippe is directly involved in that process. Having directed a successful production of Octet at Berkeley Rep last year and having had “the most fantastic time” during the show, she eagerly accepted the Rep’s Artistic Director Johanna Pfaelzer’s invitation to direct POTUS.
“I love comedy and athletic ensemble work,” Tippe said, a description which certainly fits POTUS. But the play tackles serious issues as well. “It becomes a play about proximity to power … people of any age or gender or identity can relate to how corrupting that can be. Yes, it’s a play about a POTUS, but it’s also about every bad boss we’ve ever had and how much that costs us.”
Casting the piece, she saw many wonderful actors, she said, but the women she chose “made me laugh the minute [they] walked in the room. They are extremely funny but extremely grounded … it’s a beautiful blend of truthfulness and high-stakes comedy.”
Cast members include Deirdre Lovejoy (Harriet), Kim Blanck (Jean), Susan Lynskey (Stephanie), Stephanie Pope Lofgren (Margaret), Dominique Toney (Chris), Stephanie Styles (Dusty) and Allison Guinn (Bernardette).
Tippe also praised the “brilliant” fight choreographer and the intimacy consultant. At one point, she said, a stage direction asks the actors to “dog-pile on one another.” In order to make that both funny and safe, expert physical execution is needed. Fortunately, she said, “the actors are fearless.”
Asked what she discovered about the play during the rehearsal process, she said, “How strong the script is. If I get fussy, it derails the intention of the text.” She and her cast let the script do the work for them, allowing the rhythm to emerge. She’s also been surprised by the moments that have touched her, as the characters come to terms with their complicity.
Audience members will likely feel some compassion, as well. “I think people will identify with at least one of the women onstage. Their humanity becomes pretty potent,” she said. Those who initially start with an air of judgement may, by the end of the play, find themselves rooting for somebody.
Like Fillinger, Tippe confirmed there have only been minor text tweaks to the Berkeley Rep version of the play—mostly to reflect technology updates. Also, like the playwright, she feels the script may have even more impact now. It isn’t specifically about Trump—any number of powerful male leaders could be represented by the looming off-stage presence.
Amanda Marie Miller made the same point in her review of the Broadway production for Theatrely. “Prior to viewing, I wondered if I would spend any time thinking about exactly which ‘POTUS’ this show is about,” she wrote. “Who’s the man at the center of it all? Ultimately, it didn’t even cross my mind. Even with the politics and optics of the administration, I was too wrapped up in the depth of each woman and the dynamic between all of the characters.”
“It’s political but not partisan,” Tippe emphasized, drawing comparisons to Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. “It’s a farce about our system.”
She feels strongly that one of the main messages is how important it is to have women in leadership positions.
Who will enjoy POTUS? A wide range of people, actually. “If you are a lover of comedy, this play is for you. If you loathe or love politics, this play is for you. Regardless of gender, there is something in this play for you,” Tippe said.
As for Fillinger, she has more ideas for plays in the pipeline. There’s no doubt the theater world will continue to hear from her—the Broadway Women’s Fund named her to its 2020 “Women to Watch” list.
She has commissions from the Roundabout Theatre Company, South Coast Repertory, Manhattan Theatre Club and Williamstown. “I have recurring ideas about power, class, gender, hierarchies,” she said, adding that theater remains a vital source of “long-form thinking in a sound-bite world.”
‘POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,’ Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Roda Theatre), 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Sept. 20-Oct. 22. Running time: 2 hours plus 15-minute intermission. Masks required. Post-show discussions Sept. 29, Oct. 5, 10 and all matinees. 510.647.2949. www.berkeleyrep.org