Totalitarian coup at Gloucester Stage




GLOUCESTER — Imagine, if you can, an oligarchic takeover of a state led by a “Palinesque” Manchurian candidate with only a hapless, dying, Occupy-style activist standing in the way of her establishing a totalitarian regime.

Forget trying to imagine it. It’s been done for you! Playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s over-the-top, absurdist, dark comedy The Totalitarians, currently at Gloucester Stage, presents just a scenario.

It seems somehow appropriate that this play is directed by Gloucester Stage managing director Jeff Zinn, son of the late radical Boston University professor Howard Zinn.

The candidate, Penelope “Penny” Easter (played by Breean Julian) is a vapid opportunist whose ambition is exceeded only by her cluelessness.

“I’ve been misunderestimated all my life,” Penny proudly proclaims as she announces her intention to win the lieutenant governorship of Nebaraska. If Penny resembles Sarah Palin, it’s in the sense that she is a physically attractive candidate with a tenuous grasp of the issues and an inflated sense of her own political abilities.

totalitarians4Amanda Collins is a hoot as Fancine, Penny’s campaign manager/speechwriter whose own professional ambitions allow her to overlook what an empty pantsuit Penny is, even as Francine writes hollow platitudes for Penny to spout.

We first meet Francine as she is pacing her bedroom in her underwear wracking her brain to come up with a slogan for the campaign as her doctor husband, Jeffrey (Lewis D. Wheeler) begs her to take a break so that they can arrive on time for their dinner reservation.

Jeffrey tells a distracted Francine that he just treated a strange young man who had advanced cancer but he couldn’t bring himself to be completely frank with the patient regarding his diagnosis.

totalitarians2It turns out that the young man, Ben (Alex Portenko), is a one-man radical fringe group. He warns Jeffrey that Francine is working for a candidate who is being funded by shadowy forces that want to install her as a figurehead of a totalitarian regime. Jeffrey initially dismisses Ben’s claims but Ben eventually wins him over, partly because Jeffrey has never been a huge Penny fan.

To the playwright’s and director’s credit, they mostly keep things non-ideological. Penny’s “Palinesque” aura notwithstanding, her pronouncements are neither liberal nor conservative, but merely idiotic.

Penny’s idea of profound political position is embodied in declarations like, “Violence – we should start a war on that!” Or, “I want everyone to be their own totalitarian regime!”

But despite her lack of discernable principles, Penny is decidedly “establishment.”

Similarly, the “radical” is also a stereotype. With his black hooded sweatshirt and ski-mask, Ben resembles an Occupy activist, but has no specified agenda other than stopping Penny from being elected. He also speaks in radical-sounding but meaningless bromides like, “Love is weakness, causing blindness followed by oppression,” or “A baby is a selfish attempt at immortality at the expense of the planet.”

totalitarians3There’s a lot to like about this production, not the least of which are the actors that Zinn has cast and the performances that they deliver.

As stated previously, Amanda Collins (who was a hit in last season’s Out of Sterno) is hysterically funny as Penny’s stressed-out campaign manager.

Brean Julian delivers Penny’s inane malapropisms with a conviction worthy of a real politician, like when she tries to smooth over a conflict by announcing her willingness to “work together to make amendments.” Or her observation, “That sail had shipped.”

Wheeler is a study in understated frustration as the doctor who hates patients and is married to a wife who ignores him in favor of getting a vapid candidate into office.

Portenko gets to deliver the most intense performance as the dying, radical activist with a hidden, surprise motive.

There are lots of laugh-out-loud moments in The Totalitarians and much that rings true, especially as we try to make it through the last two months of our own election-year theater of the absurd.

The Totalitarians runs Sept. 1 through Sept. 24 at Gloucester Stage. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Purchase tickets online or call the Box Office at 978-281-4433.

[The Totalitarians, by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Directed by Jeff Zinn. Scenic Design, Cristina Todesco. Costume Design, Miranda Kau Giurleo. Lighting Design, John R. Malinowski. Sound Design, David Remedios. Props Master, Jeffrey Petersen.]

This review appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item.

Photos by Gary Ng.

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