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Theater: ‘The Totalitarians’ at Kitchen Dog Theater

Drew Wall (Ben), Tina Parker (Penny), Leah Spillman (Francine) and Max Hartman (Jeffrey) in ‘The Totalitarians’
Drew Wall (Ben), Tina Parker (Penny), Leah Spillman (Francine) and Max Hartman (Jeffrey) in ‘The Totalitarians’

Given the way political campaigns have gone in the past eight years — which has a lot to do with the new level of hyperbolic discourse on partisan-ized social media — it’s not so much a stretch to imagine that we could see something like the final scene in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s satirical comedy The Totalitarians, which is having its area premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater. Sort of like how fans of the notorious late punk singer GG Allin came more for the onstage antics than the music.

Penny Easter (Tina Parker) is running for lieutenant governor of Nebraska. No one — including Easter — thought she had a real chance given that she isn’t very bright (not to mention fact-resistant), but campaign manager Francine (Leah Spillman) has done her best work yet and created a monster.

That final scene at one of Easter’s final speeches before the election involves a bow and arrow, lots of loud say-nothing rallying cries and another character with a weapon. It’s so ridiculous it could never happen in America.

Or could it?

As we trudge on through the shenanigans of the 2016 presidential primaries, Nachtrieb’s satire loses a little bite than even when it premiered in Washington, D.C. just over a year ago, because it’s increasingly conceivable that something like this could happen. It’s kind of like reading a satirical political headline in The Onion and understandably mistaking it for truth.

Directed by Christopher Carlos and with a scenic design by Bryan Wofford that uses a backing panel of photographs and images evoking Nebraska and “ ’Murica” — corn, flags, hot dogs, “the real America” — The Totalitarians has moments that lag, but only because the scenes with Parker as Easter are so riotously funny that anytime she’s not on stage it’s a little disappointing.

That’s not to take away from the other performances. Spillman does her best work in years as the uptight campaign manager desperate to have one success story on her résumé.

As her husband, a doctor named Jeffrey, Max Hartman, is convincing as a loveable bleeding heart who becomes involved in a conspiracy theory perpetuated by his patient Ben (Drew Wall), who’s dying of cancer but doesn’t know that because Jeffrey’s too chicken to break the news.

But this show is all about Parker. Easter is an obvious hybrid of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, given her love for roller derby and bow hunting, her gay husband and her ability to combine nonsensical sentences into a speech that revs up a larger part of the electorate than it should.

She also gets a funny catchphrase: “Freedom from Fear,” conveniently abbreviated to FFF. (Think Herman Cain’s 9-9-9!)

Fans of Kitchen Dog will recognize Parker’s popular, rousing curtain speeches in her characterization of Easter, turned up to 11. And it works. There’s a skill to writing nonsense speeches so well, and Nachtrieb has been given plenty of real-life models from which to choose from.

Parker delivers them with clueless fervor. Don’t even try to drink a beverage during her big speech in the first act, because it will fly out of your nose.

Carlos’ production has some inspired choices, such as using Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever in the final rally (sound design by John M. Flores).

If you’re wondering how many more times you’ll slap your forehead during the next year of presidential campaigning, “dimple your chad” with The Totalitarians. You could use the laughs.

The Totalitarians

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