By ANNE SIEGEL
MILWAUKEE, WI – With the mid-term political elections just weeks away, one of Milwaukee’s newer theater companies uses that timing to open The Totalitarians, a 2015 political satire written by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb.
The play is simultaneously horrific and hilarious as it dissects the daily activities surrounding a political campaign gone amok. This campaign is set in Nebraska, a state that is soon to vote for a new lieutenant governor. The candidate in question is Penny, a former roller derby contestant with basically no idea of how to appeal to voters. She has big hair and a big mouth, and she longs for the attention an election race can bring. Penny’s political pedigree is questionable, however, and she is all too aware that some people view her as a curvaceous bimbo. Her taste in clothes is gaudier than her political handlers would wish.
Miraculously, into her life comes Francine, a young, aspiring political speechwriter who believes she has a winning strategy. Francine toils endlessly to craft speeches that will elicit “the greatest degree of trust” in Penny. While Penny delivers these speeches with gusto, they contain little more than vague promises and trite slogans. For instance, one major speech assures the public that she can deliver “Freedom from Fear.”
Cleverly, Penny delivers these speeches straight to the audience, as if we are the ones attending a political rally.
Meanwhile, Francine’s husband, Jeffrey, is a soft-hearted physician who can’t bear to deliver harsh news to his terminally ill patients. One such patient is Ben, a young man who is so full of political zeal that Jeffrey is amazed by his energy and passion. Ben soon begins confiding things to Jeffrey that initially seem laughable, such as a clandestine movement to turn Nebraska into a totalitarian state.
When Ben mentions Penny’s name as the leader of this secret group, Jeffrey pays more attention. He suddenly worries about his wife being associated with a revolutionary revolt.
In fact, Jeffrey would like nothing more than to see his wife step back from her professional role and instead choose motherhood as her life’s work. At home, he makes several clumsy attempts to initiate the act that leads to conception. Francine mostly brushes him off.
The play’s four characters perform a beautifully timed dance under the able direction of company founder and artistic director Jaimelyn Gray. Often, the play feels like riding a roller coaster, one that sometimes veers too close to the truth. The actors are adept at keeping the play’s over-the-top antics as “real” as possible. Their ability to deliver punch lines with a straight face is impressive. This makes the dialogue all the funnier.
Here’s the kicker: on opening night, the assistant director (Rebekah Farr) had to sub in for an ailing cast member who was sidelined by a non-COVID illness. The entire cast rose to the occasion without missing a beat. Considering the complexity of the play’s stage business (which involves shooting a real arrow into the wings not once, but twice), it’s amazing that everything went off without a hitch.
Farr is to be commended for her courage under such circumstances. If there hadn’t been a pre-show announcement explaining the situation, the audience never would have known that such a major cast change had taken place.
Farr became a convincing Francine, a woman more interested in her own career potential than getting her candidate elected. We discover that the cynical Francine could care less about Penny as a would-be leader. As the play continues, Farr becomes more neurotic and excitable as the campaign heats up. She becomes more hilarious to watch, too.
One of the play’s funniest scenes involves the two men, Ben (Ekene Ikegwuani) and Jeffrey (Matthew Scales). Standing side by side, they attempt to make a You Tube video about the upcoming revolution. Both are wearing ski masks to hide their identity. However, the mouthless masks make their statements basically unintelligible. Only an occasional word gets through as they shout and gesture wildly in front of a smart-phone camera.
Of the four actors, Scales faces the biggest challenge in making his character credible. One can hardly imagine that a doctor would make the script’s outrageous statements. There’s also the matter of Jeffrey’s overly passive behavior (at least, until his patient Ben recruits him to the cause). But Scales seems up to the task, even when confiding to his wife that he “hates sick people.”
Most of the play’s success rides on the character of Penny (played by Maggie Marks). She must appear to be flirty, a bit daft, and completely selfish and self-serving. She wants to open a bottle of champagne at the news of her opponent’s sudden demise.
The play’s action is carried out on a small, divided stage. There is a bedroom on one side (set design by Sarah Harris) and an office on the other. In the costume department, Penny’s outfits match what one would consider appropriate for a candidate’s TV appearance (costumes and props by Maya Danks). The lighting is courtesy of Isabelle Flores, with sound effects and music by Derly Vela.
The play was written by a San Francisco-based playwright who has earned acclaim and attention. Another one of his plays was selected by the Humana Festival for New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s work has been seen Off-Broadway, at Woolly Mammoth in Washington, DC., Seattle Rep and at various theaters in the Bay area.
If the candidate in The Totalitarians reminds one of any real-life political figures, efforts are made to avoid easy comparisons. The Totalitarians is neither red nor blue. It is, however, a very adult comedy that should be restricted to children ages 12 and up. The language often gets rough and raunchy, not to mention the play’s bedroom antics.
The Totalitarians offers people a chance to laugh at a time when the relentless wave of political attack TV ads becomes overwhelming (and disgusting?). From start to finish, it’s a politically-themed joy ride that intrepid theatergoers will want to make.
The Totalitarians plays through October 29 at the Interchange Theater Co-Op in downtown Milwaukee. Patrons are required to wear masks indoors at all times. For tickets, contact Eventbrite.com.