What if we lived in a world where presidential elections weren’t such shit shows?
Hear me out.
Imagine there were many worlds very different from our own – even civil, perhaps – where George Washington never died and never lied, Atticus Finch didn’t end up being a racist, and your mother still loved you. Pleasant enough, yes?
But lo! Imagine there’s another theoretical world in which there is still a woman named Hillary, and Hillary is married to a man named Bill. Bill was once president, and now his wife Hillary too is running for president.
And she’s losing.
And it’s 2008 in a state called “New Hampshire”.
This is the theoretical world of playwright Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton at Victory Gardens, in which, perhaps, thousands and millions of worlds float among the ethers – some bound to be alike, and others not. However, when this world of Hillary and Clinton happens to find itself preoccupied with relaying a “different” reality that is far too much like our own, the show’s message mostly comes as a mixed result. (Pun intended, sure)
But back to this theoretical world: our Hillary Clinton (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) is stuck smoking cigarettes in an eerily white, extremely minimalist hotel room in New Hampshire, knowing that if (and probably when) she loses the primary election there, her go-for-broke campaign run is way past gone and massively broke. Torn between the expectations of her campaign manager Mark (Keith Kupferer) and her mostly absent husband, former president Bill (John Apicella), Hillary is a woman who knows she’s qualified to be the president and wants bloody desperately to be the president but seemingly lacks the magnetic charisma donned by her fellow opponent, the “Other Guy” (Juan Francisco Villa).
It must be noted that in this theoretical world, this Hillary, much like our own, has had a past relationship with the society known as “the people of the United States”. And just like our Hillary, her likeable husband once knocked panties with his intern and an implied list of other women, but, also like our Hillary, she stuck around. Why? Because this Hillary knew that leaving her president husband behind would demolish any opportunity to pursue her own political career, so this Ivy League woman stayed. For herself. For her career. Like a bitch.
Or that’s what people have chosen to believe anyways.
Now, Lucas Hnath has stated on the record that, at least in regards to the Clintons, he doesn’t “know much about them, really”. Hnath, rather, has claimed that the piece is “just a play about marriage”, where “Bill and Hillary really are a mythic kind of married couple. [And] As such, we like to project a lot of ourselves onto their relationship”.
And people will inevitably go into this show bloated with their projections and expectations. How can they not? Especially given the fact that Victory Gardens’s PR team has taken the path-almost-always-taken-by plastering their posters with paper doll cutouts of Hillary Clinton’s beloved pantsuit and then proceeded to name their featured cocktail after said pantsuit.
In fact, despite what Hnath may have intended, this “play about marriage” isn’t about marriage at all – or at least not Artistic Director Chay Yew’s direction of it. This is a show about being a woman in politics married to politics, and judged all the while for it. Hnath has a history of manipulating the past to his own whims (with plays featuring iconic subjects such as Walt Disney, Isaac Newton, and Anna Nicole Smith of course) . However, what this production really got right was not in its elements of fiction, which there was seemingly very little of, but, almost ironically, in the perceived truths of one Hillary Clinton.
It is here where I will admit that I too walked in as a bloated theatrical consumer selfishly expecting not parody, no, but perhaps an insight, a little humanism even, from a presidential candidate who I don’t personally know or feel as if I could personally know. Was that wrong of me to do? Well, yes and no. Yes, because I entered fully aware that this was a work of fiction and not bloody copy of Hard Choices. Even so, I still expected an element of drama deeply rooted from the heart of a person essentially unassociated to the work at hand, which was wrong of me. Also no, because we’re talking about Hillary Rodham Clinton, for crying out loud. People are going to come in with their political biases, and there’s nothing Hnath or Chay Yew can do to stop that.
As for the PR team at Victory Gardens, well, their choices are on them.
But back to those perceived truths: there is a great scene in Hillary and Clinton where Hillary and Bill are fighting over the politics of charisma, how this “Other Guy” has it in spades, and no one, not even the charm-y smarmy Bill, could beat that guy. It is then that Bill decides to not only contribute the funds necessary to keep his wife in the race, but he will do it with nothing more than a few bloated expectations. Namely, he will do it if Hillary dumps her current campaign strategy and adopts his: be a woman. Not a woman ashamed of being a woman in a man’s race. But a woman in all of her nurturing, feminine glory in her own race.
If you are a human in our very non-theoretical United States of America, maybe you have been tipsy at a bar and have commented on the pantsuit-donned Clinton as an aggressive, ultra-defensive take on a woman–stripping herself of any feminine wiles to make her way to the Oval Office. I have made this comment before, and c’mon, I can’t possibly be the only one who has said it. Yet, it was fundamental that this production not deny us of this one unified expectation – Hillary’s own hesitation to embrace her femininity as a power figure, that is – because if theater is the resemblance of truth, then there still needs to be a truth, and this was Hillary and Clinton’s. And yet…
Even with the production’s inclusion of Hillary’s undeniably masculine approach to politics, this “alternate universe” ploy seemed as if it were nothing more than an attempt to avoid indulging the audience of their own perceived histories with these public figures. In turn, the show strayed away from any meaningful relationship building between the characters themselves and the characters with the audience. It does seem as if they considered infusing something heartfelt into the mix – what, with some truly beautiful glimpses of moments between our Hillary and Bill, particularly in the production’s finale – but then decided, no. We’ll stick a bunch of long, mostly overdrawn monologues into the show instead and place the focus on their words, and consequentially the playwright’s intellect, rather than any sentiment the audience could possibly desire. It’s a smart play, said the playwright and director! Not a goopy one!
Were they well performed overdrawn monologues? Absolutely. Cheryl Lynn Bruce and John Apicella are solid actors. However, solid acting could not save a narrative that exploited the past to a fault yet claimed to be fixated in a fictional universe. To put it bluntly: The show felt like a lazy approach to either a.) avoid doing extensive research into the 2008 elections or b.) a way not to get sued by Clinton’s people.
With this lack of sentiment or the giving in to preconceived notions, by the time the “Other Man” – this Faux-bama, if you will – shows up to Hillary’s hotel room with an ultimatum, the deal carries little to no weight. In fact, no one cares enough about these fictional Clintons because the pace and the message of Hillary and Clinton was too preoccupied with trying to rebuild and reinvent their own history which was, again, not that different from our own, just more unoriginal and uninspired.
Would it have been different, nay better, if the show had indulged the audience by focusing the piece on a less-theoretical Hillary, who was married to a real man named Bill Clinton whom had once slept with an intern named Monica Lewinsky? And this less-theoretical Hillary still hadn’t divorced this less-theoretical Bill, but unsuccessfully ran for president back in 2008 against a man named Barack Obama, who would later himself became the 44th president of the United States? And this less-theoretical Hillary, despite the blatant sexism plotted thick against her, still attempted to run for president again in 2016?
Or maybe even a good editor would have done just enough to put this show over the edge. Theoretically speaking, of course.
Hillary and Clinton is running at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, until May 1, 2016. Show times are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 P.M., Saturdays at 3 P.M. and 7:30 P.M., and Sundays at 3 P.M., with an additional matinee on Wednesday, April 20th at 2 P.M. Tickets are $15-$60 and may be bought online, via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or by calling the Victory Gardens Box Office at (773) 871-3000.