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BWW Review: THE TOTALITARIANS is Razor Sharp Side-Splittingly Funny Satire

THE TOTALITARIANS is a new play by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb that had its world premiere in 2014. It is a satirical comedy that takes a behind the scenes look at modern politics and how a speech writer can make or break someone running for public office. Although the play is about a woman running for Attorney General in Nebraska, the play shines a bright light on the current political campaign here in America examining just how easy it is to sway the populace with unsubstantiated facts and catchy slogans. It also happens to be one of the sharpest satires since the days of Jules Feiffer.

Penny (Barbara Chisholm) is an inveterate screw up of a politician who is constantly putting her foot in her mouth and yet manages to remain irresistibly charismatic. (Remind you of anyone?) She has engaged Francine (Elizabeth Doss), a campaign manager with a skill for glib phrases and oratorical word salads and a driving passion to make a name for herself. She hits upon a catchy slogan, "Freedom From Fear", and although it has no real meaning, it may be just the thing to take the magnetically mesmerizing Penny straight to the top. Francine's husband Jeffrey (André Martin), is a doctor who has a problem delivering bad news to his dying patients. One of those patients is Ben (AaRon Johnson). It is Ben who opens Jeffrey's eyes to just how monstrous Penny's plans are for the Cornhusker State. It seems Ben thinks Nebraska will become a totalitarian state if the public elects Penelope Easter... and he aims to make sure that doesn't happen.

Nachtrieb's ever so dark political comedy is full of scathingly funny lines and unexpected twists of plot. It is an intense and savage piece of comedy that takes no prisoners. It is also one of the funniest political satires I've seen in quite a long while. Not only does it examine politics, it also touches on modern relationships. The piece is a brilliant unmasking of power struggles both personal and professional that comes to a shattering conclusion.

Jenny Lavery has done a remarkable job staging this piece. It moves like a freight train to a surprising conclusion you will never see coming. Chris Conard's set is quite impressive, utilizing three playing areas that transform into multiple locales. There is a wonderful surprise in store for the audience toward the end of the evening that I don't want to spoil. Rachel Atkinson has done a nice job with the lights, gracefully setting mood and place in the changes. Jenny Hanna-Chambers costumes for the piece are subtly impeccable. Her costumes for Penny especially, if one is paying close attention, scan the gamut of political garments for women. Starting with the white color used historically to pay respect to the suffragettes and progressing through the blue and red political party colors is a brilliant touch.

The four performers in THE TOTALITARIANS are some of Austin's finest and are all on top of their game here. Barbara Chisholm is absolutely dazzling as politician gone amok Penelope Easter. This is a brilliantly written character and Chisholm makes the most of it. She handles the word salad speechifying with hilarious aplomb. As Francine, Elizabeth Doss is sensational as the articulate and driven campaign manager whose burning desire is to get out of Nebraska. She gives subtle clues along the way that make her final choices totally believable without ever tipping her hand. André Martin gives a magnificent performance as Jeffrey, starting out understated and slowly becoming manic as the proceedings bat his character about. He also displays an outstanding gift for physical comedy. Rounding out the cast, as Ben, is AaRon Johnson who once again displays how adroit he is at comedy, both verbal and physical.

THE TOTALITARIANS is a masterfully done satire on 21st century politics. While it is outrageous in concept, the last several months prove just how prescient Peter Sinn Nachtrieb was back in 2014. If you're tired of what is going on in politics right now, come laugh at this heinously hilarious play. You'll be glad you did.

THE TOTALITARIANS by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb

Running Time: Approximately Two and a Half Hours, including intermission.

THE TOTALITARIANS, produced by Theatre en Bloc at The Off Center (2211 Hidalgo Street, Austin, TX).

Sept. 8th - 25th, 2016.

Thursdays - Sundays at 8 pm. at the Off Center

Tickets sliding scale $0 - $35, available via 512 522-4083 or via

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From This Author Frank Benge