Note: Entire Contents Copyright 2016 by Michael Hoban
For those of us who are getting a little too wrapped up in this upcoming election for the sake of our sanity, the last thing you’d think we’d need is yet another reminder that the completely ridiculous candidate that we all laughed at could potentially become the next leader of the free world. Thankfully, the lead political figure in this absurd (and very funny) production more closely resembles a cross between a pair of Daily Show/Colbert Report sock puppets – Sarah Palin, and the lesser known but equally looney Michelle Bachman – to bring it too close to home, so the result is a raucously comical look at how Americans respond to image and rhetoric over substance in today’s insane political environment.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t more than a few parallels between Penelope Easter – the wealthy former roller derby queen bankrolling her own campaign for Lieutenant Governor of Nebraska – and the Orange One to cause a level of discomfort. Because as laughable as Palin is today, eight years ago it was not inconceivable that she could have been a heartbeat away from the presidency. But Penny and the other outrageous characters in this somewhat uneven but often hilarious production are just so over the top that ‘The Totalitarians’ grants us a little “freedom from fear” (Penny’s powerful sounding but nonetheless empty campaign slogan) to laugh during this trying election cycle.
The clueless candidate appears to have little chance in the election, mostly because – as her new campaign manager Francine begrudgingly admits, “her stupidity is probably not an act.” But those odds are given a huge boost when Francine, channeling her feelings about her troubled marriage, writes an ambiguous but fiery speech for Penny (which she delivers on roller skates) that drives her followers into a maniacal frenzy at the campaign rally. The demented address sounds like a classic Palin/Trump/Bachman mashup, with lines like: “You might know what they want you to know about me. That sometimes I put my ‘foot in my mouth.’ Sometimes I ‘swear in public’ when there are children and clergy present. And I have a husband who ‘likes special things.’ (Like Bachman, Penny has a presumably gay husband). But those admissions only serve to fire up her constituency, as they view her as someone who “speaks her mind” – despite there being no substance or coherent thought emanating from that mind.
Lest you think that the play is all right-wing bashing, the extreme left also gets held up to ridicule, beginning with the opening scene where an ‘Anonymous’-esque character botches a video being broadcast to the world about the evil that Penny Easter is about to wreak on Nebraska. The conspiracy theorist turns out to be Ben, a patient of Francine’s physician husband Jeff, who keeps forgetting to tell him that he’s dying of cancer, despite being reminded repeatedly by Ben’s penchant for dropping to his knees in pain while having violent coughing fits. Jeff falls in with Ben’s one man resistance movement when he realizes his wife is being blinded by her ambition and that she and Penny must be stopped.
This a lightning fast-paced comedy, with so many terrific one liners that it might require a second viewing to catch them all. The humor can be a little sophomoric at times, but I laughed consistently throughout. The plot wears a little thin towards the end, but this is comedy, not a scholarly treatise on the pathetic state of our political process. It’s also that rare comedy where the women provide most of the laughs (although Gloucester Stage’s terrific season-opening ‘Lettice & Lovage certainly fit that bill). Breean Julian is a scream as the manic Penny, and she makes the transition from dim bulb to calculating politician seamlessly enough to be a little frightening. Amanda Collins follows up her IRNE-nominated performance from last year’s “Out of Sterno” with another comic gem as the driven Francine. Alex Portenko provides Ben with the obsessive (but still funny) quality of a misguided “revolutionary”, and Lewis D. Wheeler is convincing as the hapless physician, despite being saddled with the most thinly drawn role.
We don’t know how this election is going to play out, so you may as well take your mind off the whole mess with this darkly comic production. For more info, go to: http://gloucesterstage.com/