nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 12, 2007
According to Webster's, agon is the Greek word for conflict, specifically the dramatic conflict within a play; from it is derived agonistes, or competitor. Out of this meaning other meanings have arisen—an agonist is someone who is engaged in a struggle or could be used to describe someone who is merely argumentative; drugs that mimic normal metabolic functions are called agonists; and our word agony, with its implication of deep and profound suffering, comes from the same root.
All of these potential meanings are contained within the title of Nick Salamone's play Hillary Agonistes (presented by Playwrights' Arena from Los Angeles) and reveal themselves over the course of its 75-minute playing time. Salamone packs more ideas into this one-act fantasia about the travails of a future President Hillary Clinton than many plays twice its running time. It's a gripping, at times intellectually exhilarating, update of the kind of work that Shaw might have produced had he been faced with a world riven by religious extremism and contending with the threat of nuclear annihilation; and up until its final minutes, it succeeds beautifully.
Much of the reason for this success is that Salamone has chosen a provocative premise and committed fully to exploring its every possible implication. Hillary Clinton (played by Priscilla Barnes) is now President, but the election that has put her into the Oval Office has returned control of Congress to the Republican party. One June day during her first year in office, 65 million people around the word suddenly vanish. Is it the Rapture (the fundamentalist Christian belief that at the beginning of the apocalyptic times all true believers will ascend bodily into Heaven)? A colossal hoax on the part of the Christian Right to discredit her administration, as her rationalist Chief of Staff, the Scotswoman Morag (Jean Gilpin), posits?
But wait, Bill Clinton and Kim Il Jung have also both disappeared, so maybe it's the the work of Satan (as Pat Robertson argues), gathering his minions for the final battle at Armageddon. Or perhaps it's a mass abduction by space aliens, or at least that's what the military encourages the Clinton II White House to propagandize, as this will undermine the Right's political advantage. In a series of interviews with emblems of military, economic (Secretary of the Treasury Mike Bloomberg), scientific (Stephen Hawking), and religious authority (Robertson and the papal nuncio)—all of whom are played by Salamone—we watch Clinton struggle to find the right palliative that will "cure" this political crisis.
It's great fun watching her contend with these opponents as they grapple in vigorous political, philosophical, and theological debate. Admirably, Salamone is able to sustain this engaging tone right up until the last scene when the play suddenly confuses itself for Greek tragedy. This tonal shift not only violates the structural logic of the play (Clinton has not committed an act of spiritual hubris for which she must be punished), it also sacrifices the virtue of ideational clarity for the far more nebulous one of emotional "impact." Watching Hillary agonized simply isn't interesting. Mrs. Clinton fascinates and repells in equal measure (largely depending on one's cultural and political biases) because she is the ne plus ultra of wily competition. For this agonistes, defeat is only a comeback waiting to happen.