(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Fridenthal.)
When, upon picking up your ticket for Theatre en Bloc’s new production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “The Totalitarians” (playing through Sept. 25 at the Off Center), you are told that in order to enter you must wear a temporary tattoo with a stylized “FFF” design (standing for “Freedom From Fear”), you begin to get an idea of the kind of mix between farce and fascism that you’re in for.
“The Totalitarians” is the story of Penelope Easter, a small-time Nebraska politician whose public speaking ability does not quite match her charisma and personal magnetism. Enter Francine, a young campaign manager and speechwriter with something to prove. Together, Francine and Penny hit upon the slogan “Freedom From Fear,” an ultimately meaningless platitude that becomes the cornerstone of Penny’s campaign, which focuses on fear mongering rather than any actual issues.
This, of course, may sound familiar given the current political climate, but Penny Easter is far more of a Sarah Palin or George Bush than a Donald Trump. As the story unfolds, we find out from Ben (a paranoid, cancer-ridden political activist who is a patient of Francine’s husband, Jeffrey) that, because of her charisma and naivety, Penny has been selected as the figurehead of an extremist movement to take over Nebraska and turn it into a totalitarian state.
The truth of Ben’s theories, and of Penny’s complicity in such a movement, is called into question at several times throughout the play, but Jeffrey comes to believe Ben and follow him down a path of radical activism. The heart of “The Totalitarians” is in Jeffrey and Francine’s conflicted feelings of love, ownership, drive, and loyalty, all of which are put to the test by Penny’s campaign.
Director Jenny Lavery and her design team have done a magnificent job embodying this conflict, showing the ways in which Nachtrieb’s text make the personal into the political, and vice versa, literally transforming the intimacy of a bedroom into a public political stage.
The text itself is not flawless, as it rides the line between political satire and outright farce, never quite settling on one or the other until the final scenes. It also does somewhat of a disservice to Francine, who is always so tense and high-strung that the wonderfully talented Elizabeth Doss doesn’t get to show the character’s other colors. The same is true of Ben, portrayed with intensity and increasing frenzy by Aaron Johnson.
André Martin is able to flourish as the neurotic, likable, harried Jeffrey, who is given some of the most broadly comedic moments of the play and does a hilarious job with them. As Penelope Easter, the centerpiece of “The Totalitarians”, the formidable Barbara Chisholm is remarkable, simultaneously showcasing the character’s lack of sophistication, immense personal charm, and darkly frightening underbelly.
With some strongly comedic—and strangely sympathetic—performances, as well as a perfectly devised design sensibility, Theatre en Bloc’s “The Totalitarians” is a hilarious commentary on contemporary American politics that provides a little relief from the darkness of the current election cycle.