Lisa Ann Wright-Mathews and Wayne Miller play Melanie and William Jefferson in "Votes," a musical set on the eve of the 2016 election at the Castillo Theatre. Photo: Remy.
The Castillo Theatre looks like a regular theatrical house, with a spiffy lobby, rows of seats and a raised stage, but the people behind the host company actively use performance to agitate for dramatic political change.
Their current offering, “Votes,” presents a barely fictionalized Hillary Clinton-like former first lady, senator and secretary of state moments away from breaking the presidential glass ceiling.
“Votes” takes a 1999 musical, “The Last Temptation of William Jefferson,” by psychotherapist Fred Newman, and intersperses new material by Jacqueline Salit, a self-described political independent and agitator. The musical numbers’ lyrics depict the political process as corrupt and advocate for changes in the rules that govern it.
“Votes” is set on election eve and as the candidate is about to become the first woman president of the United States, she quits the contest. She does this to disrupt what she’s come to believe is a corrupt system.
Salit, the president of an independent, “anti-party” political organization, and “Votes” director Gabrielle Kurlander were long associated with Newman, who promoted a sexually charged brand of psychotherapy and founded the far-left International Workers Party in 1974. He died in 2011. Newman’s political activism continues through the two women.
Salit managed Michael Bloomberg’s three successful mayoral campaigns on the Independence Party line and was a key player in the presidential bids of Ross Perot and Lenora Fulani.
She emphasized that her play is fiction, but the thinly veiled characters talking about salacious sexual conduct and singing about unproven corruption would lead many in the audience to a Clinton connection.
It’s not unexpected that a politically focused theater company would set its sights on Hillary Clinton. She is, after all, a polarizing figure. With the New York primaries coming up next week, the timing, too, is fortuitous.
The Clintons, with decades in politics, not to mention Bill Clinton’s two, sometimes exceedingly tumultuous terms as president, are ripe for theater fodder. Last season, the charming satirical “Clinton the Musical” highlighted Bill. This year, Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton” reimagines 2008 on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. That play, developed in New York, runs through May 1 in Chicago.
During a recent conversation, Salit insisted that the two-party system is “inadequate and repressive, is corrupt and needs to be disrupted.”
But if the people involved with Castillo hope to start a revolution, it will more likely come from their political activism than from “Votes,” with its unimaginative lyrics and script.
Left unexplored in the play’s outcome is an undeniable result: When a major player walks away from the arena, the contest shifts to whoever is left on the ballot.
“Votes” concludes with a call to (non)action, urging Americans to do anything but vote.
When told about the play’s denouement, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who represents Manhattan’s Upper West Side, said, “That’s insane.”
Nadler, who has long tracked Newman’s group, called it “A psychotherapy cult masquerading as a left-wing fringe group.”
“Open primaries sound good,” Nadler said. “But if the current system is corrupt, many would agree it’s because of the influence of money, and money is even more important in open primaries.”
The solution, he said, isn’t to abandon the system, but to work to improve it. And, he said, people who don’t share the party’s ideas shouldn’t get to influence the outcome. “That’s not fair, and it’s not democratic.”
Crucially, Nadler said, disrupting a system doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get something better.