There is a surprising correspondence between celebrity gossip and Greek tragedy: Both break stories down into archetypes and a series of tableaux, and by doing so, they become models for how (or how not) to live our own lives. But gossip makes us feel superior to its subjects, while tragedy makes them our equals, so that their struggles become our own. It is this formula that lets Wendy Weiner’s Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy with a (Somewhat) Happy Ending transcend its Saturday Night Live potential to become a surprisingly moving and humanizing retelling of one celebrity’s familiar story.
Reviewed by Jason Fitzgerald
The simplicity of the show’s setup yields its rewards: The goddesses Athena (war and reason) and Aphrodite (love and passion) are in a terrible feud, and the lives of mortals are their primary battlefield. A young girl named Hillary, whose dreams of being an astronaut have recently shattered, decides to become Athena’s disciple. Aphrodite, spurned, responds by unleashing her own acolyte on Hillary’s bright future: Enter Bill Clinton. The rest is history, or, as the play suggests, cultural myth: “Chelsea Morning” on the radio yields to the governor’s mansion, Jennifer Flowers, the White House, the pastel skirts, the healthcare tome, and, finally, the definition of “is.”
The task of playing the tragic hero falls to Mia Barron, an actress of growing stature on the American stage (The Coast of Utopia, QED, The Pain and the Itch), but unfamiliar enough not to compete with her famous character. Barron is an unlikely Hillary: her sharp features, darting eyes, and strong diction make her performance a bit like Tina Fey’s might be. But she is a smart actress, less concerned with impersonation than with her character’s subtle development from awkward, headstrong girl to steely, voracious adult. Her strongest moment comes after Hillary allows Athena to remove half of her heart, so that cold ambition might replace pain at her husband’s wandering eyes. There’s no immediate change after this cosmic surgery; instead, over the next ten minutes, it becomes clear that her vulnerability has disappeared.
The balance between heart and hardness is the ultimate moral of the story. In the last third of the play, a post-Lewinsky Hillary begs Aphrodite, her former rival, to remove the other half of her heart. Aphrodite sends her to hell (via Newt Gingrich’s back door, of course) to fetch a golden harp, an adventure she barely survives, thanks to Bill’s saxophone, which soothes the three-headed monster Cerberus. Barron’s quiet, intense delivery of Hillary’s response—“Goddamn you, Bill. I will not cry”—brings all the contradictions of Hillary’s broken, armored heart into focus.
Her anagnorisis is to see clearly that her vulnerability and, yes, her love for her imperfect husband, are as much a part of her makeup as her strength and her ambition. The lesson is ours as much as hers, a challenge to any simplistic reading of Ms. Clinton, and a surprising plea for complex sympathy from a play that purports to move in two dimensions. One may wish for the play, which was written in 2006, to include the latest events in Hillary’s story (sequel alert!). Instead, it ends with her declaration, upon joining the Senate: “Whether it be my generation, or the next, we will have a female president.” It is the kind of terribly ironic echo that will likely trail this complex figure—the character and the woman—long after her story is over.
Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy with a (Somewhat) Happy Ending (1hr 30 min, no intermission)
The Living Theatre (21 Clinton St)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $20.00
Performances (through 12/20): Sun-Mon 8pm & Wed-Fri, 8pm
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.