Proper pandering to fear
by Richard Dodds
As states are color-coded according to their political leanings, you might say Nebraska is red and white and black and blue. Not the actual Nebraska, mind you, but the one playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb has created for The Totalitarians. In this increasingly riotous political comedy, Nebraska is targeted for a totalitarian takeover by unseen forces backing a politician with troublesome oratory skills. "Sometimes some things just come in my mouth wrong," the candidate acknowledges to her campaign manager.
And if her skillset is also deficient in matters moral and intellectual, Penelope Easter is shrewdly ruthless. She sees in the people of the Cornhusker State a willingness to blindly follow a proper pandering to their fears. "Do you think it's a coincidence," she asks, "that Kool-Aid was invented in Nebraska?" (Kool-Aid was indeed invented, in a kitchen sink, in Nebraska.)
It's reasonable that Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin might come to mind at this point, and Penelope Easter would unlikely exist without these forebears. But in Z Space's The Totalitarians, Nachtrieb is casting his satiric net beyond specific personalities and ideologies. How politicians are packaged and marketed is certainly on the agenda here, as well as dark money, dirty tricks, and family values, but the playwright also displays a giddy sense of the absurd that owes no allegiance to any ideology.
The play opens with a young anarchist named Ben in a ski mask delivering his manifesto, but Ben becomes a Kenny, the character from South Park whose hoodie so muffles his voice that only an occasional word or two can be deciphered. The more intense Ben becomes in his rant, the funnier the scene becomes. Poor guy, but just another paranoia-fueled nutcase – or so it seems.
Played by Andrew Humann with a boyish vulnerability in delicate balance with conspiracy-laden vitriol, Ben has an increasingly important role as the play approaches a Shakespearean-flavored showdown that is a bit grisly but a lot funny thanks to the warped world that Nachtrieb has established.
For much of the play, the focus is on the vivacious candidate and the comparatively mousey political operative who find out together what power feels like. They brainstorm a slogan to arouse the voters without much caring what the words mean. "Freedom from Fear" becomes the campaign catchphrase, and crowds begin chanting "FFF" at her rallies – which, in another inspired touch of Nachtrieb silliness, comes out sounding like a very unthreatening "fuh fuh fuh."
As Penelope, Jamie Jones reminded me first of a steely Stockard Channing before becoming something of a crazy-eyed late-stage Ann Miller as her ascent to power approaches. Those are personal reference points for a performance that creates its own screwy reality that Jones luminously establishes. The character is at once an airhead, a monster, and a seductress, pulling into her spell Francine, the campaign manager that Alexis Lezin nimbly creates in smaller strokes.
Left behind in the escalating swirl of events is Fran's husband, Jeffrey, a meekly agreeable doctor who's at first happy if his wife is happy. Liam Vincent brings a delightful guilelessness to the role, with an eagerly open face and a gentle manner that remains intact even after he becomes a second ski-masked agitator convinced of Penelope's sinister motives. Twists become Oedipal before storming into Shakespeare territory for a farcical denouement only slightly undermined by a rather conventional coda of reconciliation.
The Z Space production of The Totalitarians is the third and final edition of what the National New Play Network calls "rolling world premieres." Different casts were featured in the play's two previous productions, but director Ken Prestininzi also helmed the New Orleans debut. He's clearly keyed into the idiosyncrasies of Nachtrieb's vibe, or as Penelope calls them, his "idiosyncrasissies."
The Totalitarians will run at Z Below through Dec. 14. Tickets are $20-$50. Call (866) 811-4111 or go to zspace.org.