Victory Gardens Theater’s world premiere of HILLARY AND CLINTON offers an intriguing, timely portrait of life in the public eye.
Victory Gardens Theater’s world premiere production of Lucas Hnath’s HILLARY AND CLINTON invites audiences to imagine an alternate universe, though similar to our own, in which a woman named Hillary Clinton is running for United States president. And in setting up the play this way, Hnath has crafted an intriguing, multilayered play that simultaneously is and is not about the Hillary Clinton recognizable to 2016 audiences. With direction by Victory Gardens Artistic Director Chay Yew, this play invites audiences to consider themes both intimate and expansive.
HILLARY AND CLINTON takes place in a hotel room in this alternate Earth, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 2008. This intimate setting allows Hnath to show us an interior life that we cannot see about the real-life Hillary Clinton. And when her husband Bill shows up, HILLARY AND CLINTON becomes, in part, an intimate portrait of a flawed marriage. On the macro-level, Hnath’s play artfully examines larger issues of celebrity culture and gender politics. Hnath’s use of both the alternate universe construct and the private hotel setting allow him to examine these various themes in a way that provokes and intrigues but never feels heavy-handed.
Though this was my first viewing of a Hnath play, I know that the playwright’s body of work has often focused on putting public figures onto the stage-a term dubbed “stereoscopic theatricality.” HILLARY AND CLINTON asks us to hold the image of political figure Hillary Clinton in our heads, while also observing the actions and words of Hnath’s Hillary-which do not always align with our perception of the former.
With this presentational style, Hnath asks audiences to consider the construction of celebrity. All that audiences know about Hillary Clinton comes from a filtered perspective: we receive messages from the mass media, from the internet and social media comments, from other presidential candidates, but seldom from Hillary herself-and even her public statements are intentionally crafted. Hnath smartly allows the play’s Hillary to tell her own story via a meta-theatrical device and the use of direct address. At the beginning of the play, Hillary invites audiences into this alternate world. And thus, while in our world Hillary does not have control over her own narrative, in the play she is given this power.
The casting for Victory Gardens’ production also highlights the humanity in this Hillary, for black actor Cheryl Lynn Bruce does not resemble Hillary Clinton physically. In this way, we are able to see the character on her own terms-yet Bruce’s calm, collected line delivery does have echoes of the real-life woman. Even when navigating uncomfortable conversations with Bill (a comical, bumbling John Apicella) and her well-meaning campaign manager Mark (the ever-charming Keith Kupferer), Bruce’s Hillary remains composed and graceful. Bruce carries herself throughout the entire play (she never leaves the stage) with this strong sense of composure and remains unflappable as she comes face-to-face with her opponent Other Guy (a suave and earnest Juan Francisco Villa).
But though Bruce appears calm, she still allows us to feel for her character. Hnath’s writing allows us to get inside the head of this Hillary and see the toll that the campaign process takes on her. We also see just how much gender politics plays on Hillary’s political aspirations-though she is distinct from her husband, she must always lurk in his shadow and feel the burden of his actions. In this play, Hillary’s initially larger-than-life figure becomes achingly human.
The design elements reinforce the deconstruction of celebrity. Janice Pytel’s costume designs have Hillary and Bill in casual attire, which further separates these characters from the public figures we always see in formal suits or evening wear. Bruce’s wide-leg pants and bright purple casual sweater present us with a Hillary not ready for the public eye, while Kupferer and Villa wear crisp suits. William Boles’s sparse set design evokes a soundstage with stark white furniture and two doors to represent the hotel room. This “room” is flanked by onstage lights that one would expect to find on a movie set. This stylized setting reminds us that Hillary has control over the action of the play, just as the media has control over her image before the public eye.
In its swift run-time of just under 90 minutes, HILLARY AND CLINTON dives into myriad questions and gives audiences much to unpack and ponder. Though we may know a great deal about the real-life Hillary Clinton’s politics, this play reminds us that there is a private, human side underneath that we will never really know-and posits that the only one who really has all the answers is Hillary herself.
HILLARY AND CLINTON runs through May 1 at Victory Gardens Biography Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Tickets are $15-$60 and can be purchased online at VictoryGardens.org, by phone at 773.871.3000, or at the Box Office.
Photo by Michael Courier
Read the original review at BroadwayWorld.com.