Review: Feminist farce ‘POTUS’ in Berkeley is trying too hard

The Oval Office is twisted in the political satire “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.”

The president does not appear in Selina Fillinger’s not-so-frothy feminist farce, which frequently falls flat in its regional premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The point, however, that patriarchy is alive and well in American politics is well taken. In this over-the-top Beltway spoof, seven badass women twist themselves into pretzels every day to make the president look like a jerk.

This loopy lampoon, directed by Annie Tippe, tries far too hard to tickle the funny bone with its cheesy stock caricatures, nonstop profanity, and dated political zingers. There are numerous raunchy jokes, ranging from phallic gags to a running gag about breastfeeding, but none of the raunchy humor is particularly edgy. The sharp social commentary on gender bias elicits wry smiles rather than full-throttle laughter.

When the President makes a PR gaffe that spirals out of control, it’s all hands on deck, from Harriett (Deirdre Lovejoy of “The Wire” fame) to the put-upon press secretary (Kim Blanck). They work tirelessly to keep the trains running even as nuclear negotiations loom and the president’s girlfriend, the ditzy slurpee-guzzling Dusty (a hilarious Stephanie Styles), and his hard-boiled drug-running sister (Allison Guinn), set up camp at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

They both have explosive news to share while a frazzled reporter (Dominique Toney) looks for a scoop and the Michelle Obama-esque first lady (Stephanie Pope Lofgren) attempts to appear more “earthy.” Doors are slammed, sculptures are hurled, and liaisons are launched from hall closets.

Despite a few delectable moments, such as the first lady’s passionate ode to the pleasures of hunting game and Dusty’s truly endearing conflict resolution via cheerleading, the shtick falls flat here.

Tippe, who also directed the memorable “Octet,” doesn’t keep the pace fast and furious enough, and the comic timing is often off, with some punchlines rushed and others dragged out far beyond the point of patience. At its best, farce should feel light and effortless, but the funny lines here often feel forced and formulaic.

A gag with a recurring crude name for a female body becomes tiresome quickly. The presidential posterior’s doomed status is also prominently featured. Both could have tickled if the timing had been more precise.

The sitcom-style shenanigans have a vague sense of desperation to them. The satire appears to be aiming for a bloody revenge fantasy vibe (think of the dream sequence in the 80’s classic “9 to 5” film), but there isn’t enough depth to the characters or motivations to care who falls or triumphs.

It’s difficult to root for anyone other than the selfie-obsessed Dusty, who appears genuine in a world ruled by artifice. She observes that any of the assembled women would be a better president than the man in charge. While that may be true, this “POTUS” falls short of making us want to laugh or even rage about the sad state of affairs. There’s no way to feel better unless we laugh ourselves silly.

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