Who will be the next president of the United States -- Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?
It's two months and a few days until Election Day, when we vote and finally find out after a grueling primary and campaign season. But Merrimack Repertory Theatre gives us the chance to vote early, plus enjoy a clever, fast-paced American history lesson with its season opener 45 Plays for 45 Presidents, playing Sept. 7-Oct. 2.
The timely show offers a 2-minute glimpse at each president -- George Washington to Barack Obama -- plus a view of highs and lows our nation has experienced, using nearly every theatrical device imaginable. At the end, the audience votes on which new play will close the show, either on Clinton or Trump, whoever wins that evening's ballot.
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"It's smart and well-done," said MRT artistic director Sean Daniels, who directs and has directed it during every election year since 2004. "How often do you get to see a full American civics lesson in less than two hours? And to see the choices we've made as a country, over and over again?"
The Neo-Futurists, a Chicago-based theater troupe, first created the play in 2002 and called it 43 Plays for 43 Presidents. Four of its five writers, including Lowell-born and Billerica-bred Andy Bayiates, were company members.
Bayiates is credited as the Founding Father, since he came up with the idea during the electoral crisis during the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
"It occurred to me that I didn't know much about many presidents, like Rutherford B. Hayes," said Bayiates recently. "It struck me that the Neo-Futurists could do a collaborative play. So I hired four writer/performers -- Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates (his wife), Chloe Johnson and Karen Weinberg -- and we set down guidelines and got to work."
"I wanted it to be truthful, but not judgmental -- we'd save the outrage for later," he said.
They chose presidents they wanted to write about from a poster Bayiates had, then assigned the others. The result is an array of storytelling approaches, either serious or comical, including ballet, puppetry, narrative, physical theatre and Schoolhouse Rock-style musical numbers. All converge into a cohesive whole.
"Response was phenomenal. We got standing ovations, critics raved and we got a lot of attention from National Public Radio and PBS," said Bayiates.
Daniels saw the premiere and has since directed it at Dad's Garage Theatre in Atlanta (former President Jimmy Carter attended), Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., and Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y.
The cast includes MRT returnees Veronika Duerr, Nael Nacer, Terrell Donnell Sledge, plus newcomers Celina Dean and Aaron Munoz.
They are having fun putting it together, said Daniels.
"The show is sneakily smart and built by everyone in it. We're in the thick of it and having a blast," he noted.
The play gets attention every four years as Election Day rolls around, says Bayiates, who revises it regularly. He wrote the Clinton play, and his wife penned Trump's.
Over 20 theaters around the country will produce it this year. But MRT is pretty special, he said.
"MRT has such an awesome reputation, so having my play done there is incredible," he said.
Tickets are $26-$70 for 45 Plays for 45 Presidents at www.mrt.org or call 978-654-4678.
All about Andy Bayiates
- Born in Lowell in 1974.
- A quiet shy kid, who wrote poetry and comedy for a select few and delivered The Sun for spending money.
- Graduated Billerica Memorial High School in 1992.
- Attended Fitchburg State College as a film major, but soon switched to theater and helped revive the Falcon Players at the college. They produced one of his first plays.
- Mentored by Richard McElvain, his Fitchburg professor, who has acted on the MRT stage.
- McElvain will direct one of his new plays this year.
- Moved to Chicago and joined the Neo-Futurists, where he met his wife Genevra Gallo.
- Dad to 10-year-old daughter Ari.
- Family, including parents Chris and Judy and sister Nikki, still live in Billerica. Waiting in the wings
The rest of MRT's season includes:
- Abigail/1702, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Oct. 12-Nov. 6.
"It will be fun to do Halloween show by one of the most versatile horror writers on the scene," said Daniels.
- Going to See the Kid, by Steven Drukman, Nov. 30-Dec. 24.
A new play for the holidays about two reporters heading to Florida at Christmas to land a final interview with aging Red Sox legend Ted Williams.
- The Making of a Great Moment, by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Jan. 4-29.
About a two-person theater troupe putting on a two-person show of great American classics and what it takes to be an artist. The playwright wrote this for Aysan Celik and Danny Scheie, who play Mona and Terry.
- Women in Jeopardy, by Wendy MacLeod, Feb. 15-March 12.
About three women in their 50s who are afraid for their friend who has a new man, who's just plain creepy. " It's funny, smart, great comedy," said Daniels.
- Chill, by Eleanor Burgess, March 22-April 16.
A story that captures the joy and heartache of becoming a grownup in the America no one saw coming.
- My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend, conceived and performed by Charissa Bertels, book and lyrics by Christian Duhamel, music and lyrics by Edward Bell, April 26-May 21.
A new musical about Charissa, a 20-something actress who meets Robert, a quick-witted, 80-something millionaire and their unlikely friendship.