Political satire usually doesn’t age well. What were once hot topics fade quickly from headlines and memories. Who remembers what a hanging chad was? Even the best of Saturday Night Live‘s political sketches from only ten years ago should come with footnotes. Kitchen Dog Theater is presenting the regional premiere of the political satire, ‘The Totalitarians’ — which was actually written two years ago. But in his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says, when it comes to political campaigns, ‘The Totalitarians’ can still sound like last night’s newsfeed.
Every so often, Kitchen Dog Theater finds a play with a role that unleashes Tina Parker. Parker is the company’s co-artistic director, and when she goes crazycakes onstage, you want to be there. It’ll be a story to tell. Possibly to the police.
Parker can certainly play mousey little characters; she was attorney Saul Goodman’s behind-the-bullet-proof-glass receptionist on TV’s ‘Breaking Bad.’ But onstage, Parker is a big presence with a big voice — and when her big characters are equipped with tiny brains, Parker has zero inhibitions about turning them into a ten-car pile-up wrapped in pantyhose. In Kitchen Dog’s new production, ‘The Totalitarians,’ Parker plays Penelope Easter, a former roller derby queen who took too many hits to the head. She’s running for lieutenant governor of Nebraska. Her family life’s a mess, and she’s completely unqualified for any office. But she can deliver hilarious, angry gibberish with complete conviction.
“These are bad, bad times!” Penelope bellows in the speech that grabs media attention for her campaign. “So frippin’ bad that even the rights we thought were un-un-in-alienable are under a full assault. Life is under attack! Murderers! Viruses! Avoidable accidents! And of course, I don’t think my opponent – with his bulletproof Cadillacs and access to medicine – really understands how we could all die — [snaps fingers] — just like that. I understand ‘cuz I, Penelope Easter, will fight for your life!
“Will you fight for mine?”
As one character asks, what does any of that even mean? Well, what it means is Penelope Easter can stoke people’s resentments and fears. She certainly can’t articulate them, but who cares? Many of us can’t either. That only makes her more “authentic.”
It’s too bad Penelope isn’t the main character in ’The Totalitarians,’ although it’s her power-mad drive that gives the play its energy. Instead, the real focus is on her campaign manager, Francine, played by Leah Spillman. Francine knows Penelope’s stupid but Francine seriously needs to run a winning campaign, prove herself to the party higher-ups. That need finds a perfect candidate in Penelope: If Francine’s speechwriting and optics can get this idiot elected, she’s off to the nationals and joining those White House bunglers on ‘Veep.’
But Francine’s doctor-husband Jeffrey (Max Hartman) comes to fear that Penelope might actually win. And she might actually be dangerous. He’s been listening to a young cancer patient of his named Ben (Drew Wall). If candidate Penelope represents one political extreme — let’s call her the conservative heartland outsider and rabble-rouser — then Ben’s her opposite number. He’s the bitter, liberal, little-guy cynic who pushes his distrust of corporate money into paranoid conspiracies.
After he declares 95 percent of all of Nebraska — energy, communications, agriculture, land — is owned by a wealthy cabal, Ben vehemently informs Jeffrey that “a secret, well-stocked militia is quietly being trained in an underground base in Broken Bow, and then after the next ‘election’ when everything is in place — boom! Checks and balances gone, government, money, minds, material objects, everything under control. Nebraska overnight will become a totalitarian regime.”
Unfortunately, ‘The Totalitarians,’ like so many American political satires, ends up in the too-safe position of declaring a pox on all sides — as if the different parties and ideologies carried equal weight, equal merit, equal blame. But what “side” is Penelope even on? It’s clear playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb set his sights on the populist likes of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann (the malapropisms, the husband widely rumored to be gay, the affection for hunting game). But none of the aggressive positions those political figures have staked out on abortion, immigration or taxes ever comes out of Penelope’s mouth. Of course, yes, asking Penelope to have an actual political position is a stretch. She’s mostly just a loose cannon who babbles. She’s not even a convincing puppet or party hack. Any noisy sentiment Penelope would spout, she’d probably countermand the next moment, especially if there’s a bottle of champagne nearby.
Meanwhile, if Penelope basically has no political agenda other than unloading her gripes and getting elected, Ben is nothing but party-line, paranoid analysis. Until, that is, the play’s big revelation empties him out. Playwright Nachtrieb seems intent on spoofing the wretched rhetoric, the canned oppositions and unhinged-from-reality speechifying our political discourse has fallen into. It’s a fat and more-than-worthy target. But there really are important things at stake in political campaigns, more than just soundbite nonsense.
Against these two crackpots, Nachtrieb has Francine and Jeffrey struggle to find a sensible position in the middle somewhere. By the end — too feebly and too late — the couple becomes an attempted counterweight, a kind of small-scale reality principle against all the wide-eyed rage flying around. But exactly what the couple is supposed to represent is never clear — beyond a married, middle-class normalcy muddling through somehow.
So OK, the play’s political satire is mostly a penny arcade shooting gallery, too cheap, too easy, too much to shoot at. Director Christopher Carlos does keep ‘The Totalitarians’ firing away as a loud, dark farce. Sometimes too loud — as if to keep up with Parker’s rampaging Penelope, everyone else goes up several notches on the frenzy scale.
Too bad. Given our presidential campaign, this play might have mattered somehow. But frankly, as long as Tina Parker’s onstage, we don’t care much about the rest. Our real-life candidates (and their donors and their media coverage) have turned our electoral politics into the Great American Carnival Ride and Power Grab. At least the Tina Parker Trainwreck is fun to watch.