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A wacky look at U.S. presidents

Conor McGuigan and R.J. Harrington from ‘Presidents, Ahoy!’

Conor McGuigan and R.J. Harrington from ‘Presidents, Ahoy!’

Did you know that: James Buchanan was the only bachelor president? James Madison was the shortest man to ever hold the office? John Quincy Adams liked to skinny dip in the Potomac? William Taft started the tradition of the president throwing out the first pitch of baseball season? No? That’s not surprising. The average person probably doesn’t. But no doubt Conor McGuigan does. Then again, McGuigan is far from average.

The local actor/DJ/gallery owner does his part to keep Scranton entertained, appearing at The Northeast Theatre, spinning records and hosting events at Test Pattern. Turns out McGuigan is also quite the presidential trivia buff. Next Tuesday, in a special one-night-only performance, McGuigan will combine his love for performing, his passion for music and his knowledge of Oval Office tidbits into an offbeat mini-history lesson called “Presidents, Ahoy!”

“Presidents, Ahoy!” is billed by The Northeast Theatre as a “theatrical yet educational journey” featuring 43 U.S. presidents live on stage. It’s just like Disney’s Hall of Presidents attraction, but with puppets. And voodoo. And music. And a talent show. OK, turns out it’s nothing at all like the Magic Kingdom attraction, but it’s bound to be more entertaining than those creepy animatronic guys, and informative to boot, complete with a list of presidential facts in each program.

“It’s a wacky, wacky show,” says McGuigan.

That’s somewhat of an understatement.

In “Presidents, Ahoy!” McGuigan plays David Rice Atchison, a senator who served as president for one day before Zachary Taylor was sworn in. With the help of a henchman played by R.J. Harrington, Atchison resurrects the dead presidents for a talent show. The politicians are brought to life by puppets fashioned out of random items, including a wig and an old Halloween mask.

“I’ll pretend anything is a puppet,” says McGuigan.

And while he doesn’t fancy himself a puppeteer, he does enjoy giving inanimate objects a voice, having used the technique in several other shows.

“I kind of revel in the mediocrity of my puppeteering,” he says. “It’s a weird thing, but people laugh at it, which is really my main goal.”

“Presidents, Ahoy!” is partially scripted material and partially off-the-cuff improv.

“I always like to keep it loose like that,” says McGuigan.

With just under a week to go, it’s still a work in progress. According to McGuigan, the creative process surrounding the piece is a bit of a challenge, since so much of the work depends on the music in the show. And with a collection of more than 2,000 records, the show’s tunes run the gamut from soul to New Wave to heavy metal. There’s even likely to be a love ballad sung by one of the dearly departed. Expect appearances by Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy, but be prepared to spend more time with our country’s lesser-known leaders.

“I’m not paying much attention to the big names,” McGuigan says. “The focus of my show is really the no-name presidents. They’re the stars of my show.”

Upping the quirky factor is the fact that “Presidents, Ahoy!” is being performed on the set of The Northeast Theatre’s upcoming show, the drama “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley. While it’s hard to imagine two shows being greater polar opposites, McGuigan is grateful to The Northeast Theatre folks for their cooperation and is making the best of the set issues.

“I’m incorporating it as much as I possibly can just because it’s hysterical,” he says with a laugh.

Though “Presidents, Ahoy!” hasn’t hit the stage yet, it’s already creating a buzz.

“I think people are eager to see what the presidents would do in a talent show,” McGuigan explains. “I think people are psyched. And while the show is certainly offbeat, it is based in fact. I’d say 98 percent of the presidential facts are true. The ones that are false are so glaringly so, that people will definitely know.”

Surely McGuigan’s high school history teacher, who inspired his fascination with all things presidential, would be pleased.

Once “Presidents, Ahoy!” wraps up, McGuigan is looking forward to appearing in the Northeast Theatre’s production of “Time. Timing. Timeless.,” a collection of short plays by David Ives. And Test Pattern is hopping every weekend, with regularly scheduled art openings on the first Friday of every month and poetry readings on the last Friday.

“In the downtown Scranton area, it’s the only all-ages venue,” McGuigan says. “We have something every single weekend.”

For right now, though, he’s enjoying his role as an offbeat historian and hoping audiences do as well.

“It’s bizarre, but it’s clean,” says McGuigan. “It’s a crazy show, but it’s extremely educational. You’ll definitely know a lot about presidents when you leave the theatre, and you’ll definitely know who David Rice Atchison was. Just let your defenses down, sit back and have a good time.”



What: “Presidents, Ahoy!”

When: Tues., Jan. 29, 7 p.m.

Where: Performance Space at the Hotel Jermyn, 326 Spruce St., Scranton

Tickets: $10 general admission/$6 students

Info: 570.558.1515

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