The smartest thing about recasting a familiar tale in ancient Greek terms is that it takes the need for surprise off the table. After all, like any classic tragedy, we already know what happened to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who tabled her Athena-inspired ambitions for 18 Arkansan years for the sake of an Aphrodite-sent Bill Clinton. We’ve seen her classic flaw come to the forefront not just in her uncompromising health care push in ’94 or Lewinski-blind devotion in the ’98 impeachment, but most recently in her cold ’08 campaign. It’s a relief, then, to see Wendy Weiner’s Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending dispense with those circumstances and proceed with the comedy. After all, as many myths acknowledge, it’s not about the doing of the task itself so much as the lesson learned (or in this case, the laughs earned).
Of course, Greek mythology is a double-edged sword: it is by all means a gimmick, Chorus and all, and director Julie Kramer is constantly struggling to keep the jokes clever without coming across as slight. This is somewhat accomplished by allowing things to be campy: Lauren Helpern’s set is a flimsy mock-up of marble stadium steps, with two symmetric dresser-type shrines to Aphrodite and Athena. This also allows for some looser, SNL-like impersonations of Kenneth Starr and Monica Lewinsky, not to mention Mia Barron’s Hillary and Darren Pettie’s Bill. With seriousness sacrificed on the altar, Hillary manages to give audiences exactly what they expect: a mock history lesson.
This is where Weiner’s cleverness pays off: Bill is cast as Achilles—you can guess which part of his body his mother failed to dip into the sacred springs. The path to the underworld is, of course, in Newt Gingrich’s cellar. When on trial for perjury, Bill opens a McPandora’s Box that gets him waffling on what the meaning of “is” is. And Bill’s saxophone doubles as Orpheus’s lyre, just when all hope appears to be lost. And that’s just the farfetched part: it’s not such a stretch to imagine Athena as Hillary’s campaign manager, given the potential fallibility of gods and pollsters alike. Weiner has also liberally cribbed from existing speeches to cast the same old lines in a whole new light: after Gennifer Flowers, Hillary is able to say “I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” because—at her request—Athena has just used ravens (off-duty from Prometheus, one assumes) to peck out half her heart.
There’s also a deeper humanity to the show, thanks to Barron’s portrayal of Hillary, from a little girl, crushed at the prospect of never being able to be an astronaut, to a hyperactive debate champion in high school, a studious speaker at her Wellesley college graduation, a love-struck post-graduate, a patronizing politician introducing health care legislation, all the way to the Hillary we know and love and hate today. Bill is a real tool (literally, he’s Aphrodite’s pawn, and Pettie has fun with those faults, given that the show isn’t about him) and Hillary is far from an accurate biography of the New York senator, but that this comic modernization of a rather considerable mythos manages to be heartfelt at all is a gift from the gods.