Last night I found a seat in Memo Studio, a space in the basement of Memorial Hall, ready to take in my first performance of the 2018 Cincinnati Fringe Festival: “Billy: the Haunting of William Howard Taft,” a production of Autumn Kaleidoscope that was directed by Audrey A. MacNeil. I have to admit that I picked this show from the long list offered by Fringe because I, like playwright and actor Sean P. Mette, find President Taft to be pretty entertaining. I first learned that he had a fondness for opossums several years ago while going through a presidential trivia phase. He was so fond of them, in fact, that I heard he bred them for White House dinners, specifically because opossums found in the wild tend to feed on anything from fruits to insects to detritus — the last of which would seem particularly unpalatable to White House guests. Don’t fact check me on this, though.
Mette clearly appreciates the eccentricities of America’s 27th President — so much so that he opted to play the man himself. The play is set in January of 1909, and Taft is attempting to pen his upcoming Inaugural Address after a large dinner. He assures his assistant, who scolds him for his indulgence, that he plans to write as late into the night as he can. I wasn’t sure where this story was going until he made a crack about late-night indigestion that I realized that this American Presidential story was about to become a Dickensian comedy.
“Billy” is filled with gems of American humor, both historical and modern. The story follows a structure laid out by Charles Dickens in “A Christmas Carol,” but with a few more references to Presidents who may or may not play golf a little bit too often, and 100 times more references to opossums. Mette’s energetic performance of William Howard Taft is complemented by the dynamic performances of his three marsupial foils, played by Hannah Gregory, Miranda McGee, and Spenser Smith. The play is raucous good fun, features a surprisingly adorable incarnation of Theodore Roosevelt and ends with a reference to one of the most beloved legends attributed to Cincinnati’s most recent U.S. President.
“Billy: the Haunting of William Howard Taft” runs June 1 at 9 p.m., June 2 at 7:45 p.m., June 7 at 7 p.m. and June 9 at 4 p.m. If you enjoy playful interpretations of historical figures, I suggest you add it to your Cincinnati Fringe Festival agenda.
Hilly Kenkel is a former vocal performance major and lifelong lover of music, political science nerd, podcast junkie, and Cincinnatian. She goes through sporadic periods of obsessive sourdough baking, weight lifting, distance running, and gardening.