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The White House Mess

“POTUS” serves up a feminist farce at Virginia Rep.


The president is a dumbass.

In Selina Fillinger’s “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” this isn’t a political declaration as much as a statement of fact. But the play, which opens at Virginia Rep’s November Theatre on Friday, isn’t so much about this unnamed and unseen dumbass as it is the women who enable him.

“It is a hysterical look at the brilliant women behind a dumbass man,” says actress Catherine Shaffner, who plays the character Bernadette in Virginia Rep’s staging. “That is a story that every woman — not only in America, but every woman around the globe — can understand.”

At the show’s outset, the president has publicly referred to the first lady with a vulgar term, offending various constituencies and potentially creating an international crisis. As the characters deal with this PR nightmare, the play offers a bawdy feminist critique of the patriarchy and how women can be complicit in upholding it.

Shaffner says the show’s language is crude and hilarious.

“The first line of the play is something you can’t print, but it rhymes with ‘runt,’ and it’s not said just once. You are desensitized to it by the number of times it is used in a conversation by very smart women, and they’re quoting the president,” Shaffner says.

Though his vulgarity may recall a certain past president (who insists that he should be occupying the Oval Office at this time and hopes to again), Fillinger, the playwright, says this isn’t her intention.

“She really insists that it is an amalgam” of presidents, Shaffner says. “It’s not Democrat or Republican. It is really about the experience of brilliant woman holding up, doing the job of saving the ass of men in power. It’s about women in power, wittingly or unwittingly, holding up the patriarchy. And, maybe by the end of the show, they decide that something’s got to change.”

Virginia Rep’s “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” opens this Friday, Sept. 1. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Virginia Rep’s “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” opens this Friday, Sept. 1.

In the show, Shaffner plays the president’s sister, an ex-con who dreams of opening a tattoo parlor. For the role, the actress has applied semi-permanent prison tattoos to her body.

“She is different. She has been in prison, and her goal is to get her brother to give her a presidential pardon,” she says. “I’m trying to go legit and save up for my tattoo parlor.”

Shaffner lauds working with director Dorothy Holland and the show’s all-female cast and crew.

“She’s great. She’s brilliant,” Shaffner says. “It’s inspiring and freeing to be in a room of women. Until we got into tech [rehearsals], there was not a male presence in the rehearsal hall during the entire process. It’s been all women.”

Elizabeth Byland, who plays Stephanie, the president’s secretary, says the show is “a fierce, fiery, ferociously funny ride.”

“It holds up a mirror to all of us and asks, ‘What role do we play in our workplace? What role do we play in our relationships with people who are close to us?’” Byland says. “No matter what side of the political spectrum that you’re on, you’re going to have those moments that send you into fits of laughter.”

Byland identifies with her character, an accomplished woman with a photographic memory who speaks five languages but lacks polish and is put down in this environment.

“She is so very much me in so many ways,” Byland says. “She is someone that is constantly living in this box, and she is trying to figure out how to get rid of the box, how to color outside of the lines.”

For all the show’s fire, Byland says it also has heartfelt moments.

“You’re going to see seven badass, funny women take the stage, and you will see them explore and create together,” Byland says. “You will feel all of the feels while watching this deliciously funny show.”

Asked to pitch the show to potential audiences, Shaffner says “POTUS” is an evening of pure escapism: “Put your troubles down, forget what’s on the news every single day, blaring in your ears, and come and laugh your fanny off.”

Virginia Rep’s “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” plays Sept. 1-Oct. 1 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For more information, visit or call (804) 282-2620.

  • Scott Elmquist