Writer: Kevin Armento
Director: Joshua McTaggart
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Plays that explicitly draw attention to the fact that they are plays, where characters explicitly talk to the audience about the artifice of theatre, can be tricky beasts to pull off. Such a mechanism can betray a lack of confidence in the audience: despite sitting in the dark, watching actors play roles across scenes that may jump around in time, we are somehow not trusted to understand that we are being presented with a piece of storytelling.
Such is the case with Devil in the Blue Dress, Kevin Armento’s melodramatic retelling of PresidentBill Clinton’s impeachment. Ostensibly from the perspective of the First Lady, Armento has Flora Montgomery’s Hillary start the play by announcing somewhat portentously that the play “exists in the space between awake and sleep”, which feels rather like it is inviting the audience to nod off. It’s not that bad. Unfortunately, neither is it as good as it wants to be.
The narrative is split across two timeframes: as new White House intern Monica Lewinsky finds herself meeting, flirting with, and then having an affair with President Clinton; and later as Bill first denies their liaison, then admits the truth to his wife and investigators. It’s not hard to discern the shifting timeframes – another reason to resent the play’s insistence on drawing attention to its supposed cleverness.
Even within Armento’s contrived structure, Montgomery manages to convey a believable woman worthy of our sympathy. Likewise, Daniella Isaac’s Monica resists the role of antagonist: naïve she may have been, lovestruck even, but the power imbalance between her and the President, she argues, is the greater villain.
It’s not an unreasonable argument, to be sure, and it plays out effectively enough once we are trusted to follow it. Backed by the enchanting live saxophone of Tashomi Balfour, the all-female cast of five circle each other, Hillary and Monica accompanied by Hillary’s daughter Chelsea, Bill’s secretary Betty Currie and Monica’s friend Linda Tripp, who encourages her to save her infamous blue, semen-stained dress and all the gifts Bill sent her.
All five, Armento’s argument goes, are betrayed in their way by the President. It’s a persuasive thesis, and the factual, documentary elements of the unfolding scandal are replayed with charm and no little humour (most often from Emma Handy’s plain-talking Linda). They all collude a little, too – something accentuated by the theatrical artifice of having all actresses bar Montgomery and Isaac voice Bill at times.
Basia Binkowska’s spartan set, a curtain on a shaped role subtly suggesting the curvature of the Oval Office, is rather more effective in Act I than in its deconstructed form in Act II, with the nine words of Clinton’s denial – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” – spray painted across the back wall rather too obviously.
But at least the set is consistent with Armento’s structure, whose second act is substantially less interesting as the consequences start to play out, and Hillary and Chelsea discuss what their post-White House future will look like. Balfour’s saxophone gives way to more nebulous, piped-in tones, robbing the play of its most interesting pieces of musicality.
The biggest conflict, because it is the most personal, comes at the end. Out of all political sex scandals, this is the one remembered by the name of the woman at its heart, rather than the man with the power. You did that, Lewinsky tells Hillary, and it’s hard to disagree. But here, as in one earlier moment, the characters step out of the time periods in which Armento has previously been at pains to root his theatricality. If we had earlier been trusted to draw our own conclusions about the play’s structure the anachronistic mentions of Al Franken, Anthony Weiner, Matt Lauer and, of course, Trump, may have felt less shoehorned in.
The result is a play which is unlikely to change many people’s minds about the players concerned, if they already knew about the ins and outs of the original scandal. It may spur others on to refresh, or enrich, their knowledge, of a scandal which by 2018 standards now seems tame: but if Devil With the Blue Dress seeks to speak about the role of women in power, or how men in power abuse their authority, it falls short.
Continues until 28 April 2018 | Image: Helen Murray