Review: Bill Clinton Hercules (Central Standard Theatre)

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Bob Paisley embodies the 42nd American president at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille

It’s a bit ironic that I missed watching the debates last night to see Bill Clinton Hercules, a politically charged one-man show being put on in the Passe Muraille Backspace by Central Standard Theatre. Though after reading up on and watching clips of last night’s debacle, I can’t help but think that my evening was better spent and significantly less infuriating.

Bill Clinton Hercules premiered at the Edinborough Fringe Festival in 2014, and has been on tour ever since. It’s written by Rachel Mariner, and what really caught me off-guard with this production was that, given its bombastic title “Bill Clinton Hercules” and the descriptions on the website, I went in expecting it to be a comedic/satirical piece. Instead I was treated to a long, heartfelt monologue delivered brilliantly by Bob Paisley. Not what I expected, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I think the funniest thing about this show was how spot-on Paisley’s Bill Clinton impersonation was. He did a few other impersonations as well, and they all demonstrated some incredible voice work. The entire production rests on Paisley’s shoulders, and in a feat worthy of Hercules himself, he manages to carry it quite well.

There were a few clips from famous speeches, and some cute sound effects. The lighting was subtle yet effective. But really, the main focus was on Bubba himself and the show detailed the 42nd President’s entire life leading up to the present day.

Paisley’s mannerisms, expressions, and voice work all came together to craft an incredibly engaging character. But it’s still just that, a character. Beyond this captivating performance, I did have some grievances about the writing. I kept thinking to myself: “What’s the purpose of this show?” And even though I enjoyed myself at this production, I never really got the answer to that question.

The premise of the play is that Bill Clinton himself is delivering a TED talk reflecting on his life so far and also looking into the future; but to me, parts of the script came off as a dramatic reading of the playwright’s political views written for a guy doing a Bill Clinton impersonation. That’s not to say her insights are without value or intrigue, but at times this show felt like nothing more than a soapbox in disguise. It just strikes me as odd that someone’s taken an active political figure and put words into his mouth without a hint of satire.

I would describe the play’s rhetoric as being broad in scope but lacking in depth. It didn’t delve into any controversial issues and when looking back into the past, took advantage of the old adage that hindsight is 20/20. It touts some very optimistic, generally agreeable messages (agreeable to my leftist sensibilities, at least). And so I left the theatre having learned a lot about Bill Clinton’s presidency and hungry for more information, but I also found that there wasn’t much to chew on.

Thus the play reminded me strongly of Aaron Sorkin’s writing in The Newsroom and The West Wing. I have very similar criticisms of these shows, but that should also give you idea of where my preferences lie. And if you like that sort of writing (or anything else by Sorkin), you’ll probably really enjoy Bill Clinton Hercules.

I don’t know if the picture this show paints is entirely accurate, but it ends on a very happy note. Despite my criticisms, I was captivated throughout and enjoyed Bob Paisley’s performance in Bill Clinton Hercules. I left the theatre with the warm/fuzzies, and decided to go to bed without checking how the debates went. I probably slept better for it.

  • Bill Clinton Hercules is playing in the Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave).
  • Performances run until Oct 23, 2016.
  • Shows run Wed – Sat at 7:30PM, with an additional matinee Sun at 2PM.
  • Run time is approximately 1h 15 min.
  • Tickets can be purchased at the door or online, and are $25 with additional prices for students, artists, and seniors.
  • Contains some audience participation.

Photo of Bob Paisley as Bill Clinton, provided by Central Standard Theatre.