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    Brush to judgement

    Four artists vying to paint President Clinton trade insights about the complex former occupant of the White House in the original and still-relevant "Portrait of a President."


    The title and synopsis imply that "Portrait of a President" will be some kind of assessment of the Clinton presidency: four diverse artists meet at the White House to make the official portrait of the 42nd president. The challenges are many. How does one assess a President so recently in office? How does one express on stage a president who was so overexposed in the media, both high and low? And most importantly, how does one do this with theatricality and keep it meaningful for an audience in 2002 New York City? Playwright Herman Daniel Farrell III not only meets every challenge placed before him, but he also manages to go far beyond Clinton and actually say something meaningful about the world today.

    Written by: Herman Daniel Farrell III.
    Directed by: Nancy Jones.
    Produced by: Adam J. Miller.
    Cast: Alice Haining, Leslie Lyles, Pun Bandhu, John Daggett, Arthur French, Anita Hollander, Angel Laketa Moore, Ron Riley.
    Theater for the New City
    155 First Ave.
    Fringe Festival 2002, Aug. 9-25, 2002

    Fringe Festival 2002

    • Show listings

    • All American Boy
    • Beat
    • Confessions of an Art School Model
    • Deviant
    • The Joys of Sex
    • Living London
    • Naked Girls Drinking
    • Out to Lunch
    • Portrait of a President
    • Refugees
    • Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk
    • Room to Swing an Axe
    • Sajjil
    • Star
    • Seeing Each Other
    • Up Your Rabbit Hole
    • The Welcoming Committee

    • ASPIC
    • Stalking Christopher Walken
    • Wet Blue and Friends

    Other Fringe Festivals
    • Fringe 2000
    • Fringe 2001
    The introduction of the four artists seems to draw the lines of battle: a soccer mom homemaker dressed in a very sensible Hillary-inspired power suit, a young Asian-American Generation Y'er, a black-clad neurotic New York lesbian, and an African American elder statesman portraitist whose fame inspires awe among the three eager combatants. In talking about their current ideas and problems in art, along with humorously rushed interruptions by their host the White House steward (played by John Daggett), a series of rapid-fire banter and verbal showdowns are set up to examine the nature of power, artifice, authenticity, boundaries, and indeed, the shape of the universe.

    Farrell maneuvers the dialogue adeptly so that each topic can be examined in intellectual, almost academic language (notably by Leslie Lyles playing the N.Y. lesbian), as well as the "breakdown" version from Ben, the Gen Y kid from L.A. (played by Pun Bandhu). After the Steward gives an erudite and formal description of George Washington's failed attempt to be recognized by the British aristocracy, Ben summarizes, "So G. Dubs is like . . . 'The Revolution will not be televised, yo.' "

    The conversations are thought-provoking and poignant; at every turn the characters force one another to confront their assumptions and beliefs. Things turn personal when each artist's significant other is brought into play, and through a cycle of on stage duos their individual weaknesses and inconsistencies are brought to light. Everyone has divergent opinions in act one, finding ways to disagree at every turn. They base their judgements on years of experience, inexperience, schooling, or emotions. Not one of them can be proven wrong by their challengers, but each is pushed to the brink where their only recourse is to deny the legitimacy of the questions. It's in this style of indirect, personal conflicts projected onto characters who at first seem one dimensional, but after scratching the surface become increasingly complex, that Farrell begins to illuminate the problem of judging Clinton.

    If there's one straight drama at the Fringe this year that deserves to continue its run, I vote for "Portrait of a President." As we're reminded at the conclusion of the play, not every winner gets all the votes.  

    Act two finds the artists significantly changed in their personal lives. Discussions about Eminem, the nature of contrition, trust, liberty, and Chuck Close elicit a different set of notes this time around. A heavier dosage of direct discussion about Clinton and the implications of his behavior both as president and as man, draw a tighter circle around the object of their work and ultimately enable them to find a "both/and" instead of an "either/or" way of viewing the world. Either Clinton was a liar or a good president? Maybe Clinton was a good president, but also should have been more honest?

    Like so many great stories and conversations, the answers at the end are not so important as the trip to arrive at them is enjoyable. Each actor in "Portrait of a President" delivers a solid performance, often in roles that can be tricky given the characters' fast-paced development and the superbly written banter of the script. In 98-degree heat, two and half hours in a theater with no air conditioning can be brutal, but the proof of this show's quality is that the time actually flies by. (I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the time at intermission!)

    The set is minimal, but heavy in symbolism; the sound and lighting are barely noticeable but amazingly effective; the costuming lends an off-the-subway reality to each actor. But the real star is the script, for which Herman Farrell deserves accolades and success. If a writer's greatest challenge is to be, as he labels Eminem, "the voice of a generation," Farrell may be on his way. If there's one straight drama at the Fringe this year that deserves to continue its run, I vote for "Portrait of a President." As we're reminded at the conclusion of the play, not every winner gets all the votes. Try to see this show before the Fringe closes.

    AUGUST 21, 2002

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