BWW Review: HER OPPONENT Recreates Clinton/Trump Debates With Genders Switched
As it pertains to the 2016 presidential election, the title HER OPPONENT doesn't necessarily refer to Donald Trump. As the first woman to top the ticket of one of America's major political parties, the name of co-creators Joe Salvatore (who also directs) and Maria Guadalupe's fascinating theatre piece could also refer to a number of Hillary Clinton's opponents, such as the public's lingering prejudices against women, the perception of her as an elitist Washington insider or just being a politician cursed with accusations of not being likeable.
In fact, the title is taken from First Lady Michelle Obama's preference to publically refer to the Republican candidate as "her opponent," rather than by his name.
While the phrase "experimental theatre" tends to get loosely bandied about these days, HER OPPONENT earns the description in its truest sense, because the creators are in fact asking the audience to participate in an experiment.
For the first forty-five minutes of the piece, the audience watches actors Daryl Embry and Rachel Tuggle Whorton performing excerpts from the three Clinton/Trump debates, assigned to replicate every movement, gesture and vocal inflection of the participants.
They're well-known moments, such as Trump's "nasty woman" remark, Clinton's summary of her thirty years as a public servant and the time when Trump began wandering the stage and positioned himself behind Clinton while she was directing an answer to an audience member.
As the audience is advised at the beginning of the presentation, this is not a satire played for laughs. The two actors give extraordinarily precise imitations of their subjects as they answer questions presented by Andy Wagner, who plays a single character who stands in for all the moderators. Though Wagner has his back to the audience while the two candidates stand at podiums, his performance is also a studied impersonation.
After the performance, the actors leave the stage and Salvatore moderates a discussion among audience members. The main point is whether or not people felt differently about the candidates as members of the opposite sex. While this reviewer and his guest both felt no differently about the gender-switched candidates as we did about the real ones, several others expressed surprise that they found their viewpoints differing.
Naturally, the opinions of members of an Off-Broadway theatre audience may slant in a particular direction. Salvatore mentioned that he's heard from many Trump voters who attended the show but declined to publicly express their opinions while so outnumbered. The creators intend to bring the show to areas where public opinion leans the other way, and to eventually create a film that replicates the camera angles of the debate telecasts.
There are some differences to consider. Both actors are decades younger than the real-life rivals and there is no attempt to age them. Also, while Whorton's physical appearance is a reasonable female equivalent to Trump's, Embry is much thinner than Clinton. These factors are only brought up here because age and physical appearance can absolutely sway some opinions.
But HER OPPONENT works because the actors do an excellent job of playing their characters without appearing to comment on them. Some moments may seem a bit cartoonish on stage, but if you check the videos you'll see it's exactly how it happened.