Play imagines Hillary and Bill, in a galaxy far beyond the Beltway

John Procaccino and Alice Gatling perform as Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Philadelphia Theatre Company's

John Procaccino and Alice Gatling perform as Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Philadelphia Theatre Company's "Hillary and Clinton

When is Hillary Clinton not Hillary Clinton?

“Hillary and Clinton,” a new play opening this week at the Philadelphia Theatre Company on South Broad Street, is about a woman named Hillary who is running for president, married to man named Bill who himself used to be president.

It’s not who you think it is.

The play is set in 2008, in a hotel room in New Hampshire, on a planet on the other side of the universe that is remarkably similar to Earth — but not quite the same. Hillary is campaigning in the presidential primary, and doing badly. She is thinking of throwing in the towel when she calls her estranged husband, Bill, to join her on the road.

“So you’re saying you need money,” says Bill.“I’m saying it’s one of the things we’re worrying about,” Hillary replies.“How much?”“A lot.”“Like, how much.”“Take the number you think I need.”“OK.”“Got it?”“Got it.”“Now triple it.”“Wow.”“Yeah.”“Wow.”“Yeah.”“That’s a lot of money.”

She’s losing, much like the real Hillary Clinton did in the 2008 primary against Barack Obama. Director Ken Rus Schmoll would rather you did not think of this Hillary as that other Hillary. He directed his actors to not ape any mannerisms, body language, or speaking style of the real Hillary and Bill.

“The play is a highly experimental play, so I don’t think it’s been too hard for them to stop themselves from impersonating,” said Schmoll. “It isn’t about them. It’s about people in the situation that they are in.”

Schmoll made it easier for the audience to separate the characters on stage from the real-life characters by casting Alice Gatling, an African-American woman, as Hillary. A similar casting decision was made in Chicago where the play premiered in the spring.

“For me to play a person like Hillary, I have to study her. I have not done that,” said Gatling. In early rehearsals she tried to mimic Clinton; she said Schmoll asked her to stop because the play isn’t about Clinton.

“I am aware of Hillary, but she’s not part of my life. Which brings me to another thing — we don’t know these people,” said Gatling. “We know the images presented to us. But you don’t know the person.”

The play lives in the gap between a person’s public persona and private life, a gap not clearly defined while on the campaign trail. The language moves very fast, breathlessly so, with little room for realism. The highly stylized script by playwright Lucas Hnath does not even allow for the actors to get emotional.

Hnath has described his plays as “stereoscopic,” orchestrating two parallel narratives — the script will not make sense until the audience projects their expectations onto it. Those expectations may ultimately be sustained, warped, or rejected, but they will nevertheless be entertained.

“It’s not about the actors. This is totally about the words. The audience is going to color in everything else,” said Gatling. “We are the puppets. My face doesn’t change. You get to fill in all the emotion. The audience has work to do, because we’re not doing it.”

“Hillary and Clinton” continues through the end of June.

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