Oval office party 

Dad's Garage Theatre doesn't take risks by mocking America's commanders-in-chief -- in order -- in 43 Plays About 43 Presidents. Government satire is so common that you rather expect to see, say, Grover Cleveland rocking out to Tone-Loc, or Richard Nixon singing an Up-With-People song while his cronies steal spectators' belongings.

What makes 43 Presidents chancy is how it dares to take history seriously. Written by Chicago's Neo-Futurists, the title works can set zaniness aside to use silent sketches, telling statistics and even short poems to find a president's significance, or convey historical turning points like Manifest Destiny or Hiroshima.

43 Presidents has plenty of cheap shots and big laughs, but it balances them with pointed educational content. Scott Warren's Gerald Ford, naturally, stumbles over furniture, but the full text of his Richard Nixon pardon makes a more telling statement. Alison Hastings indicates Bill Clinton's sexual misdeeds simply by wearing no pants, but the spoken words focus on his betrayal of his party's principles.

The play conveys presidential succession, from George Washington to George W. Bush, by passing along a black frock coat representing the office. It takes a while for the show's mix of wacky hijinks and sincere symbolism to click, but everyone gets on the same page with a jug band celebration of the violent triumphs of Andrew Jackson (Marc Cram).

The script has an unabashed left-wing point of view (on a par with Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States), and its choices can be surprising, admiring the activism of Teddy Roosevelt (Anne Towns) but branding Eisenhower (Cram) as a racist who got us in Vietnam. Hastings invites parallels between Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson by reciting the same terrified speech about waking nightmares.

The five actors show enormous versatility and energy, especially Bush Sr.'s (Anne Towns) exultant dance number over his fleeting 90 percent approval rating. Cram gets the scene-stealing authority figures like Grant and Reagan, while Matthew Horgan engagingly plays the likes of Taft and Cleveland as juvenile dopes. Perhaps older actors could more credibly carry the weight of office in the more serious scenes. But that merely underscores how, while foremost a comedy, 43 Presidents features some of the most fascinating drama Dad's Garage has ever staged.

43 Plays About 43 Presidents plays through Oct. 26 at Dad's Garage Theatre, 280 Elizabeth St. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 6. 5 p.m. $15-$20. 404-523-3141. www.dadsgarage.com.


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