BWW Review: THE TOTALITARIANS: Too True to be Good
Written by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Directed by Jeff Zinn; Scenic Design, Cristina Tedesco; Costume Design, Miranda Kau Giruleo; Lighting Design, John R. Malinowski; Sound Design, David Remedios; Props Master, Jeffrey Petersen; Stage Manager, Jenna Worden
CAST (in alphabetical order): Amanda Collins, Breean Julian, Alex Portenko, Lewis D. Wheeler
Performances through September 24 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
We live in uncertain, scary times which may explain the desire to latch onto a political candidate who promises us "Freedom from Fear," no matter how unspecific their platform and policies, nor how directionless their campaign. The political is personal and many people are wandering in search of a rising star to guide them. Taking advantage of a particularly chaotic election season, Gloucester Stage Company presents the New England premiere of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's The Totalitarians, an over-the-top satire of an unqualified woman's ascent to power, thanks to a brilliant packaging job by her campaign manager-with-something-to-prove.
The similarities between the fictional oligarch Penny Easter (Breean Julian), former Roller Derby queen, and real-life Republican candidates of recent vintage (former beauty queen Sarah Palin and self-proclaimed billionaire businessman Donald Trump) are too many to list, but the knowing head nods in the audience pulse steadily throughout the play. Penny seeks the office of Lieutenant Governor in the red state of Nebraska, but the sketchy template drawn up by her driven manager Francine (Amanda Collins) could apply to any position: qualifications? overrated; truth? in the ear of the beholder; a plan to govern? details, details, details!
On the homefront, Francine's physician husband Jeffrey (Lewis D. Wheeler) would like her to work less and pay more attention to him, especially in the bedroom. He wants a child, perhaps to distract him from the challenges of his medical practice wherein he must deliver bad news to dying patients. He's not very good at it; in fact, Jeffrey refrains from telling Ben (Alex Portenko), a vibrant young man with a passion for a political cause, that he has a tumor that will end his life. Instead, Jeffrey joins Ben's guerrilla army of one, focused on stopping Penny's totalitarian mission to take over Nebraska, even though he is skeptical of the operation and it pits him against his wife.
The relationship that grows between Penny and Francine, and the bonding of Jeffrey and Ben, both strain credulity, but the actors do what they can with the material. None of the characters is especially likable; Penny is vapid, until she morphs into The Devil, but Julian brings her to life with good physical comedy skills; Wheeler's efforts to convey the wishy-washy Jeffrey are hampered by the character's one-dimensionality; Portenko animatedly plays Ben's single-minded mania, drawing a modicum of sympathy for his suffering; and Collins shows an impressive range of emotions and expressions, evolving from the disappointment Francine feels working for a stupid, low-level candidate, and turning her into a crazed, well-oiled machine that takes no prisoners.
In his Gloucester Stage directing debut, Managing Director Jeff Zinn keeps everything moving at a good clip, and makes excellent use of Cristina Todesco's Laugh-In style set, featuring multiple doors, slots, and windows. Lighting designer John R. Malinowski's work runs the gamut from the bright lights of a political rally to the shadowy locales for Ben and Jeffrey's clandestine meetings, and David Remedios provides the sounds of Youtube chatter during scene changes. Miranda Kau Giurleo dresses Penny for success in a variety of form-fitting outfits, adds to Jeffrey's blandness with unfashionable plaid pants and grey t-shirt, has Ben wear grungy, dark clothing, and makes Francine's business casual attire appear to be an afterthought of a pre-occupied mind.
The idea of forming a campaign around a personality and dispensing with statements of fact (such a bother!) is a reflection of American politics and Nachtrieb seizes on this theme as the conceit of his dark comedy. The problem is that it closely resembles reality, and how does one successfully satirize satire? Although The Totalitarians premiered two years ago under the aegis of the National New Play Network, in advance of the Donald entering the presidential race, Palin's brand of anti-intellectual, faux folksy "politispeak" had been in the arena since the mid-aughts, kickstarting the zeitgeist of know nothing, say anything pols who "tell it like it is" to adoring throngs. The theater can and should play a role in pointing out the flaws of the system and the people who toss their hats in the ring, and laughter is the best medicine. If you like your humor broad, including a colorectal exam, impersonating a gay couple, and lesbian sex, and if you are not totally put off by the utterance of the ultimate misogynistic term, then The Totalitarians might be the comic relief you seek. However, although he couldn't have known the actual scenario facing the nation in November, the playwright is asking us to laugh at fictional death and destruction that feels too close to the bone.
Photo credit: Gary Ng (Amanda Collins, Breean Julian, Lewis D. Wheeler)