Dallas — A bright-eyed, dumbass, good-looking former roller derby champ with great hair, a rich husband and a wild-eyed smile that charms the pants off man, woman or child is running for lieutenant governor of Nebraska. She’s so irresistibly charismatic, what with her hunting bow and ample curves, that no matter what swill she speaks people stomp and cheer.
Sound like certain candidates we would rather forget from fairly recent presidential election cycles? Oh, but this hip-shakin’ force of nature leaves those stupid babes in the shade. Meet Penelope Easter (a hilarious and terrifying Tina Parker), the hard-revvin’ motor of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians, directed with fist-pumping bravado by Christopher Carlos in its regional premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater. Yee-haw!
In early 2010, Kitchen Dog produced boom, Nachtrieb’s darkly comic glimpse of a future wherein two humans of this era have been reduced to a kind of live diorama of painfully funny species survival, manipulated for viewing by a cold-eyed woman controlling the black box. The San Francisco-based playwright’s earlier work, Hunter Gatherers, staged by Second Thought Theater at the same time, is another collapse of two friendly couples’ discontented civilized behavior into a primal Neanderthal orgy driven by a mean-mouthed, sex-deprived gal who’s both comic and repulsive.
With a strong satiric voice verging on the absurd, Nachtrieb’s funniest characters are his driven, power-house women, whether brainy, stupid, or just flexing their power to reproduce. They also have comic consequences for the often nerdy, namby-pamby, weak-willed or hopelessly psychotic men in their field of influence. In The Totalitarians, that field threatens to reach not just across the dinner table but also into the upper governmental reaches of the great Cornhusker State, represented by Bryan Wofford’s clever, suggestive set design that has a collage of photos featuring a phallic state capitol, corn silos, and campaign posters of “Easter Rising” and other corn-inspired campaign slogans.
Before we even lay eyes on potent Penny, we meet Francine (a tightly wound Leah Spillman), her ambitious speechwriter and campaign manager who, through a manic session of word association, has stumbled onto a perfectly powerful and totally meaningless campaign slogan made to order for her candidate. If Pen wins, it could mean escape from the boonies for underemployed wordsmith and bored housewife Francine. Her doctor husband Jeffrey (a mild-mannered Max Hartman) pleads with his driven wife to have a baby—or at least sex—and think twice about putting a winning speech into the mouth of a woman whose “stupidity is not an act,” according to her own assessment.
But who’s listening to poor Jeffrey, a tender-hearted, marginally competent doctor who can’t even tell his terminally ill patient Ben (a furtive and increasingly nutty Drew Wall) he’s dying because the kid is so convincingly passionate about his conspiracy theories concerning Nebraska’s political mafia. C’mon, Jeff. After all, Francine’s brilliant speechifying is turning the campaign around and the losing Penny is suddenly shining like all the luck in Nebraska.
Tina Parker’s Penelope Easter is a piece of work that must be experienced firsthand. Outfitted in Korey Kent’s hot campaign dresses and wearing indelible makeup, she’s wide open to doing anything to win—and nobody can deliver a fiery stump speech or work a room better than this wannabe candidate. Parker’s Penny is a crisis itching to happen. She’s believably vulnerable, almost innocently so, when she begs Francine to believe in her. Yet, she gloats with unashamed joy when she gets her way, a position she’s clearly used to assuming—literally and metaphorically.
Penny’s thrilled with Francine’s magic slogan. “Hits you in the gut like a brisket,” Pen declares, swaggering into the room, her energy bouncing off the walls. Penny has a raw way with words herself. “I have a vision. I want to suck it out of my head and put it onto the streets,” she says. When Francine gets it, Penny minces up to her and winks, “I think your brain just fondled mine,” she confides.
While the campaign flourishes and the women bask in the glow of good media, Jeffrey and sick Ben are off doing something or other in the park, sneaking around and trying to get to the bottom—or top—of Nebraska’s totalitarian power structure. Evil lurks out there, but we’re not exactly sure where or how, since both guys are often talking through ski-masks, and their muddled speech and theories seem even crazier than the blatant vacuous language of the campaign trail. Power plays explode and people shift, realign, and collapse in shocking ways.
Push comes mightily to shove and in one gloriously comic crowd-pandering scene, the pen proves mightier than even Penny. Or does it? Nachtrieb is expert at provoking a belly laugh, not to mention food-for-thought about how relationships, sex, power and politics make hilarious, if sometimes gory, bedfellows.
Be there or miss one of the wildest comic performances of the season.