Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Totalitarians

Cassidy Brown and Kelley Ogden perform in the Capital Stage production of
“The Totalitarians,” running through July 24. Charr Crail/Courtesy photo
About 10 minutes into playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s hilarious comedy, “The Totalitarians,” I was convinced that we had found Donald Trump’s playbook. At intermission, I checked on the date of publication and learned it was first produced in 2014, while Trump was still firing people on “The Apprentice,” and his watch words were “You’re fired,” not “Make America great again.”

I spoke with director Peter Mohrmann after the show and commented on the wonderful coincidence of a Trump candidacy at the time they were doing this show (which had been booked a year and a half ago). He said he had been nervously watching the campaign hoping Trump would not “peak too soon.”

But whether written with Trump in mind or not, this play will definitely have you making comparisons constantly.

Penny Easter (the amazing Jamie Jones) is an over-the top Sarah Palin-type who is running for lieutenant governor of Nebraska. She wears camouflage pants, carries a big crossbow and her only credentials are that she is a bright-eyed, good-looking former roller derby champ with great hair. She’s not too big in the brains department and tends to go off script and say whatever she thinks. She has a rich husband and a smile that charms everyone.

She is loaded with charisma (pronounced CHA-risma), she says. She uses off-color language and malaprops and has never heard of “political correctness.” She speaks in nonsensical rhetoric in such a stirring fashion that her followers are slavishly devoted and don’t realize she is making no sense whatever.

Sound familiar? This was written as a satire but, sadly, it doesn’t feel so much satirical anymore!
Penny’s long-suffering campaign manager, Francine (Kelley Ogden), is stressed to the max, and trying to balance her own political ambitions of becoming a speech writer for a big Washington politician with the job of writing a winning speech for a woman whose “stupidity is not an act,” she admits.

Her stress level is not helped by husband Jeffrey (Cassidy Brown), who desperately wants his wife to give up politics and agree to start a family. Jeffrey is a tender-hearted physician who can’t bear to let his patient Ben (Casey Worthington) know that he has aggressive cancer and will die within the month.

Ben is a political activist, dead set against Penny winning the election and willing to go to any length to make that happen. He draws Jeffrey, who has been feeling frustratingly ineffectual in his life, into his plans (it seems to be a coalition of two), unbeknownst to Francine.

Penny’s campaign takes off when Francine comes up with the winning slogan, “Freedom from Fear.” Temporary tattoos are given to the crowds with “FFF” on them and Penny’s speeches get more and more strident.

Then comes the “Freedom from Fear” moment and everyone raises their fists in the air. At first dead silence, just fists. And then a whisper growing, the crowd beings to chant “FFF. FFF. FFF.”

After a stump speech that any actress would die for, which Jones delivers with all the fervor in her bones, the campaign becomes wildly successful and the women are overwhelmed with the joy of creating such an emotionally effective response. In the meantime, Jeffrey and Ben are lurking in the city park trying to expose a totalitarian regime (“You think it’s a coincidence that Nebraska is the state where Kool-Aid was invented?) and relating to each other in unexpected ways.

This play is viciously funny in the first act, but a little less so in the second, though discovering Ben’s secret is definitely the key to the finale.

Stephen Decker’s set design is simple but marvelously utilitarian with pieces that slide in and out, up and down, without ruining the integrity of the basic message of the stage.

“The Totalitarians” is, at its core, a story about power. Penny Easter lusts for traditional political control. Ben seeks power through the destabilization of current power structures. Jeffery, feeling lost in his marriage, is trying to find power again through becoming a father. Francine is reveling in the power of creating a character who can rise to greatness using her words, though in her lust for success for Easter, she has forgotten her own set of values.

The end result is a dark comedy that rings all too true in this day and age.

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