As our nation closes in on the 2012 presidential election, we are reminded more than ever of what makes the United States of America one of the best countries in the world in which to live — as well as many of the things that have caused hiccups and in-fighting throughout our collective history.
While Americans debate over who will be our next president and the candidates dodge the inevitable character and political attacks from opposing parties, several things become blaringly apparent: most notably, that being elected POTUS is, more often than not, an exasperating and thankless job.
The University of Illinois Department of Theatre chimes in this election season with its production of "44 Plays for 44 Presidents," directed by faculty member Robert Quinlan and presented at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts through Oct. 14. The format of the play has seven performers systematically working their way through the life and politics of each of our presidents with a series of vignettes, alternately focusing on the policies each man chose to enact and the aspects of their personal lives that might have brought them to such decisions.
Though obviously political in nature, "44 Plays for 44 Presidents" is staunchly bipartisan in its portrayal of the men who have led our nation. And, as the show progresses, a reality sets in for audience members: That like us all, our presidents are flawed human beings capable of possessing both the qualities that make a man great and the ones that can cause him to flounder.
The script, written by members of the Chicago-based theater troupe Neo-Futurists, is quick-paced and vaudevillian in form, using carefully selected props and lightning costume changes, giving each of the seven cast members equal opportunity to showcase a variety of performance arts, including singing, dancing, spoken word, poetry and the occasional sleight of hand.
In 21/2 hours of performing, Joe Boersma, Preston "Wigasi" Brant, Cassandra Cushman, Sidney Germaine, Kristina Loy, Thom Miller and Tanisha Pyron are put through the wringer, blurring the lines between traditional theater constructs and the breakneck speed characteristic of sketch comedies.
"44 Plays for 44 Presidents" relies heavily on its talented cast to breathe life into subject matter that, sadly, is often viewed as dull or inconsequential to the population at large. In this true ensemble cast, no one performer stood out from the group, each actor gaining strength and momentum as he or she plays off the others. It is no far stretch to say that without the other six ensemble players on point, no one actor would be able to fully showcase his or her talents in this production, and though I am recalcitrant to lump an entire cast together for review purposes, I see no other way in which to fully praise the performance as a whole.
But perhaps what makes this particular show most galvanizing is its ability to incite audience members to continue their educational journey after leaving the confines of the theater.
Many of the facts and opinions presented within "44 Plays for 44 Presidents" are, by this time, considered to be common knowledge, but there also is a heavy dose of new information administered throughout as well. (Did you know, for instance, that Woodrow Wilson is the only U.S. president to have earned a Ph.D.? Or that Ulysses S. Grant originally dreamed not of becoming a war general but a math teacher?)
The underlying message of "44 Plays for 44 Presidents" is simple, though one that is often forgotten or overlooked in political spectrums: As the audience was told in the epilogue, "America elects people, not plans" and the "history of the presidency is a history of the American people — look at your hands; look at what we've done."
Regardless of your political affiliation, please exercise your right to vote. Because if you don't lend your voice to the discussion, someone with a differing opinion most certainly will.
If you go
What: The University of Illinois Department of Theatre presents "44 Plays for 44 Presidents," written by Andrew Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloe Johnson and Karen Weinberg; guest-directed by Robert Quinlan
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 3 p.m. Oct. 14
Where: Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U
Tickets: $16 for adults; $15 for senior citizens and students; $10 for UI students and youths high school age and younger (tickets are two for the price of one on Wednesday and Thursday)
Information: 333-6280; http://www.krannertcenter.com 
Mary Wyczolkowski is a freelance writer for The News-Gazette.