What good reason might explain actor Leah Spillman being clad only in skimpy pink panties and a sheer white tank top in her first scene in Kitchen Dog Theater’s The Totalitarians? In the sexist and unsexy four-character 2014 play by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Spillman’s character, Francine Jefferson, is an ambitious campaign speechwriter trying to mold a brassy Nebraska housewife named Penelope Easter (Tina Parker) into a viable candidate for lieutenant governor. What in that description says “lingerie model”?
The scene at the top of the first act finds Francine at home, scribbling notes for Penelope’s stump speech and arguing with her fully dressed doctor-husband, Jeffrey (Max Hartman), as he whines about dinner reservations and whether Francine will ever submit to motherhood over politics. Francine suddenly ding-ding-dings a hot slogan: “Freedom From Fear.” Buzzworthy yet empty of meaning, just like her candidate, whom Francine describes as having “no experience, no intelligence … and doesn’t know what Arbor Day is.”
In the “optics” of that moment, Spillman’s bare bodkin makes a statement, intentional or not, about her character. Francine is written as career-driven, and she’s smarter than the woman who has hired her, but in our first glimpse, Kitchen Dog’s Francine shows off not her intellect but her flawless glutes. As Spillman paces back and forth, barefoot, her dialogue as Francine is drowned out by her physique. Attention wanders. She must do a lot of lunges. Do they have decent gyms in Nebraska? Dang, you could bounce a quarter off her abs. What was she talking about? Was it important? (Hartman’s not in that kind of shape, so he’s in a shirt, trousers and bulky sweater. We hear everything he says.)
In the context of the play, Francine could have been in a bathrobe, a business suit, a cocktail dress or bib overalls and nothing would have been lost. She’s writing a speech, not posing for a live Internet peep show. But director Christopher Carlos and costumer Korey Kent have Spillman in her scanties. That says something, and it’s not good, though it does reflect the play’s ugly message about men’s efforts to humiliate women who seek power.
Two strong women are at the forefront of The Totalitarians, so it makes a difference how they’re (un)dressed and tressed. In the KDT production at The Green Zone, the stage and audience are arm’s distance apart. We can study details. Spillman’s Francine is blond, ponytailed, fat-free and juked up on Red Bull. Parker’s Penny is a blowsy disaster, black hair teased like a wind-whipped Loretta Lynn, loud polyester tops barely concealing her jiggle.
That Tweedle-dumb and Tweedle-tiny visual for Penny and Francine might be funny if the play were funnier, but it’s just jarring. Parker is so big, so loud and bumptious as Penny, we worry she might scoop up little Francine and swallow her whole. (Think of Tina Parker as Chris Farley and Leah Spillman as her David Spade.)
The two other actors in the play don’t present such distinct physical contrasts in their personae. Max Hartman’s Jeffrey is a mewling nebbish who wants Francine to bolt politics, stay home and get knocked up. Hairy, wild-eyed Ben (Drew Wall) is one of the doc’s sicker patients. When he’s not coughing blood, Ben leads a half-baked Anonymous-style assault on Penelope’s campaign. (As soon as Penelope says she has four children, “five, if you count the one I kicked out,” you know who Ben is.)
Illogically, Ben finagles Jeffrey into helping him sabotage Penelope, which would cut Francine loose from politics. But it turns out “Freedom From Fear” rouses the rabble, just like Donald Trump’s vapid “Make America Great Again.” By the time Francine snaps out of her red state stupor, her monster, Penny Easter, is popular among mobs of torch-wielding villagers. Power corrupts, but it also pays well. Francine writes another speech. And another.
With its jabs at the Koch brothers, right-wing wacko conspiracy theories and folksy fascism that arrives on a warm platter drenched in waffle syrup, The Totalitarians tries hard to be current and relevant, but it fails at trenchant political satire. There’s no one to root for in it, no one doing what’s right. If Nachtrieb was trying to mock the nutsy natterings of Joni Ernst, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, what he’s done in his play is merely to create two more caricatures of the worst women in American politics. Penny’s a vulgar idiot with a gay husband. Francine’s a twitchy neurotic. The men in the play are no prizes either, but at least they have valid personal reasons for their misguided crusades.
In the second act, Nachtrieb’s dialogue devolves into streams of quips. “I wanna light every Nissan Leaf on fire because they are way too sensible a vehicle,” says the doctor-husband-anarchist. Nobody talks like that — not even in New Yorker cartoons. The playwright tries to plug his gaping plot holes with shock value and cheap laughs. Penelope and Francine fall into a drunken clinch. The doc performs a rectal exam on Ben.
Wall and Hartman are actors with broad range and major comedy chops, but in this play they’re giving sloppy, lazy performances. Spillman has been a consistent comedy killer in her many roles at KDT and she keeps her record clean by earning no laughs in this production either. (She is in fine physical condition, however.) Only Parker looks like she’s enjoying herself and that’s because she’s the Farley, belching fire and scratching ass.
For a play that debuted in American theaters in 2014, The Totalitarians already sounds dated on the political stuff. None of Penny Easter’s antics would be all that outrageous compared with the batshit buffoonery real politicians are getting away with now. In the play, Penny shoots flaming arrows at “cats and illegals.” In real life, Ted Cruz uses a machine gun to cook bacon and Jeb Bush wants to keep out Syrian refugees who aren’t “provably Christian.”
There are your hilarious emperors of the future, fellow citizens. Not stripped to their undies, but wearing no clothes at all.
The Totalitarians continues through December 19 at Kitchen Dog Theater, The Green Zone, 161 Riveredge Drive, Tickets $15-$30 at 214-953-1055 or kitchendogtheater.org.