Theatre en Bloc's The Totalitarians

This ridiculous but smart satire about a Nebraska political race may be the only political play that can deliver laughs this election season

In the lead-up to every presidential election, theatre listings seem to include the typical handful of political plays. They mock, shame, or inform us, and they try to be topical.

Thank goodness Theatre en Bloc chose The Totalitarians for their offering this year. A ridiculous play full of absurd people, it's possibly the only political play that's palatable at this point in an election season that most people wish would just end already. The major political parties go unmentioned in the script, and policy isn't discussed. It's a story about clumsy people grabbing for power.

Francine (Elizabeth Doss) is a speechwriter living in Nebraska. She's only in Nebraska because she's married to Jeffrey (André Martin), a not-so-skilled doctor. Francine is frustrated with her stagnant career in a place with so few chances to build her reputation. Except now, the right combination of inspiration and opportunity has presented itself in the candidate Penelope Easter (Barbara Chisholm, also a Chronicle contributor and wife of Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires). A small-town wife and mother with zero experience, Penny is a hilarious mixture of ineptitude and ambition, but one thing she can do is deliver a speech. Once Francine concocts the perfect slogan for her, Penny's path to victory becomes viable.

Lurking in the shadows is the passionate, irate Ben (Aaron Johnson), Jeffrey's young patient, dying of terminal cancer and desperate to oppose Penny's campaign. Which doesn't sound very funny, but the character is a great foil for Jeffrey's weak personality. Martin's performance as the self-effacing, put-upon Jeffrey is sweet and amusing.

Perhaps the best thing about Theatre en Bloc's take on The Totalitarians is that Penny isn't a parody of any one politician in particular, as Chisholm plays her. The character is more a terrifying but hilarious representation of any number of politicians who get where they want by hitting all the right notes at a rally but who have no skill and/or interest in what it takes to govern. When Penny speaks publicly, she is passionate, but her grammar is at best unbalanced and her message is indecipherable. When talking to Francine, she self-incriminates like it's going out of style. What crowns the entire performance is the sheer delight Penny exudes as she blunders and bullies her way through the campaign.

That this crazy story unfolds in Nebraska is the one aspect of the show that doesn't land. Three of the four characters are loud, charismatic, and delightfully obnoxious. Having married into a family of Huskers, I can't see a story with this many exuberant, forceful characters taking place in Nebraska. (I once saw Conor Oberst screaming into a mic at a concert in Omaha, and even then he managed to sound sleepy and apologetic.)

That's a small complaint, and likely one that will go unnoticed by any but the most Midwestern of transplants who see the show. The script still nails the fierce conviction of those living in the heartland that what they are doing is the most important thing on Earth, even if word of it never gets east of Council Bluffs.

Under Jenny Lavery's direction, the actors deliver wonderful comedic performances. The Totalitarians is a ridiculous but smart show that can deliver laughs in a season when the only other laughter available seems to be the laughter of dismay.

The Totalitarians

The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo
Through Sept. 25
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.
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Theatre en Bloc, Jenny Lavery, Barbara Chisholm, Aaron Johnson, Elizabeth Doss, André Martin, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb

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