Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Palm Springs / Coachella Valley

Coachella Valley Repertory
Review by Robert Sokol

Also see Robert's recent review of A Case for the Existence of God

Shannon Mary Dixon, Marlo Denise Stroud,
Julie Cardia, Emily Nash, Cas Koenig,
Michelle Liu Coughlin, and Tamika Katon Donegal

Photo by David A. Lee
At first glance, the full title of POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive teases an evening of female empowerment with a potential skewering of the political patriarchy that might make C.J. Cregg proud. The reality of the Selena Fillinger play, now at Coachella Valley Repertory hews closer to Weekend at Bernie's: White House Edition than an intellectually or emotionally satisfying pussy riot.

The seven POTUS-afflicted women are his chief of staff Harriet (Julie Cardia), his secretary Stephanie (Emily Nash), his press representative Jean (Michelle Liu Coughlin), his wife Margaret (Marlo Denise Stroud), his sister Bernadette (Cas Koenig), his dalliance Dusty (Shannon Mary Dixon), and reporter Chris (Tamika Katon Donegal).

A promotional quip for the play is "global crisis is always just a four-letter word away," and Harriet and Jean come out of the gate spouting the one that the President used that morning at a press conference. They use it over and over, in multiple and increasingly absurd variations. (V, the former Eve Ensler, created a similar effect in The Vagina Monologues.) Reacting to the POTUS gaffe is the first domino and you soon realize that you are in for something 9 to 5 adjacent, and several zip codes removed from the land of Aaron Sorkin.

It's wonderful (and too rare) to have an all-female cast production. If only these women had been better served by the writing, which is extremely uneven, and a more sharply focused vision from director Courtney Young. Too many performances have a single pitch. Jean and Harriet spend too much time yelling, and not in a way that implies they are used to being in charge. Stephanie holds the same note of hysteria-infused intensity throughout the evening, and the lack of contrast undercuts Nash's truly fearless work in Act II as just seeming like more of the same.

The winners in the septet are Dusty and Bernadette. As the woman most likely to be underestimated, Dixon plays the wide-eyed but not innocent lass to perfection and artfully delivers on the classic comedy tropes of the seeming dim bulb ultimately being the wisest and most resourceful character. Koenig plays 100% dyke merged with a recalcitrant scheming screw-up, but the laughs are never cheap or forced.

Classic farce calls for much running around, slamming of doors, near collisions, and other frenetic bits of physical comedy which the company performs athletically (on an impressive and versatile set by Jimmy Cuomo). The way that Fillinger has placed it and other elements in Act II feels obligatory or like filler and not strategy.

A writer on the smart Apple TV+ series "The Morning Show," Fillinger seems to equivocate on the strengths of her characters. Harriet, a chief of staff who purports to be the power behind the POTUS, never feels in control and retreats to a wounded crumple when she learns of a POTUS betrayal. Margaret talks tough, but she's no Michelle Obama. Jean, the steeliest of the bunch, ignores her best professional instincts at the mere hint of renewing a romantic interest. By the end, Harriet's attempt at an "I am woman. Hear me roar!" moment feels weak, contrived, and pointless, made even more so when followed by an overlong curtain call concert coda where the breast-thumping rap, when you can decipher the lyrics, is out of sync with much of what went before it.

That dissonance is the biggest problem with POTUS. Does it want to be social commentary or farce? A smart comedy of errors or Benny Hill? As it stands here, it's a messy mélange of multiple genres which is a disservice to the many excellent female actors in this production.

POTUS runs through March 17, 2024, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City CA. Remaining performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:00 p.m., and Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.. Tickets are $77. For tickets and information, please visit or call 760-296-2966, Extension 0.