FRINGE 2018 REVIEW: 'Billy: The Haunting of William Howard Taft'

A riff on a "A Christmas Carol," this show follows the President-elect on the night of Jan. 15, 1909

click to enlarge Sean P. Mette at William Howard Taft and Billy Possum - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Sean P. Mette at William Howard Taft and Billy Possum

Not everyone knows that William Howard Taft was born in Cincinnati. Yes, the 27th president of the United States served one term (1909-1913) just before the outbreak of World War I, and then went on to be the 10th chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, the only person to serve in both offices. For those reasons and many more, Taft and his family name are well remembered in Cincinnati, including via a statue outside the University of Cincinnati’s College of Law (he was the dean there before his political career) and many notable sites bearing the name.

One hundred years after his time in office, the Cincinnati-based Autumn Kaleidoscope explores a “favorite son” of Cincinnati in Billy: The Haunting of William Howard Taft, presented at Memorial Hall. This same company produced Furlesque and My Darling Dilophosaurus for previous Fringes; this production is directed by Audrey A. MacNeil and features Sean P. Mette as the titular character.

The show follows the President-elect on the night of Jan. 15, 1909, writing his inauguration speech. It plays out as a riff on A Christmas Carol, even going so far as to quote from that story, with three spirits (or are they the same spirit?) visiting Taft through the night. The last president to have facial hair, an intellectual who believed in the law and loved his wife Nellie with all his soul, is tempted with the promise of power. The resulting 60 minutes is an existential battle of wills as Taft struggles with whether or not the ends justify the means. 

That might sound heavy, but the show is at its heart a comedy and its four actors are game. Playwright Mette plays Taft with a sense of dignity and humanity, while Spenser Smith, Miranda McGee and Hannah Gregory alternate as the three aspects of “Billy,” as in Billy Possum, the stuffed animal that almost replaced the Teddy Bear. Smith revels in chewing up the scenery, prowling around the stage as an unseen specter while the stuffed possum sits in an easy chair. McGee, meanwhile, is playful and has masterful comic timing as she handles the dual responsibility of mugging as herself and as a puppet disguised as Teddy Roosevelt. Gregory, however, commands the stage as both sympathetic muse to Mette’s Taft, with whom she shares potent chemistry, and as a portentous femme fatale. The weight of conveying the fatalism of the 20th century, and beyond, falls on her and she pulls it off with aplomb.

Balancing tone is a delicate thing with this kind of show. It strives to be both delightful and relevant, taking jabs at the current political climate and even drawing a subtle parallel to the popular Broadway show Hamilton. The fever-dream tangents which turn into wrestling matches and dance numbers, however, are a little off-putting at first. Still, Mette and director MacNeil pull off their contextualized intent, telling a fun tale with an intimacy to the setting and interactions that reveal Taft as not so larger-than-life and relatable but still a man to respect.

The Cincinnati Fringe Festival runs through June 10. Find showtimes, tickets and more info here.

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