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Review: The Totalitarians

Tyler Gillespie on the national premiere of a political satire at the Mid-City Theater



Blue and yellow balloons drop as a former roller derby champion-turned-Nebraskan candidate for state office steps to the podium. Her speechwriter stands by her side, arms crossed, waiting to hear the crowd-pumping words she has written. She says "New-braska" to convince people she can make the state the envy of every other in Southern Rep's production of The Totalitarians, a national premiere by way of the National New Play Network. The unlikely candidate mesmerizes the crowd with her charisma, but, as is the case with many politicians, no one knows exactly what she is talking about in the speech.

Penelope Easter (Judith Hawking) is married to a rich man who funds her political dream. Though magnetic, "Penny" can't seem to drum up support because, as she says, "Sometimes things come in my mouth wrong." Everything changes when a young, ambitious speechwriter named Francine (Jessica Podewell) answers Penny's internet ad, and the two form a dynamic duo. Francine acts as the straight woman to Penny's wild child, and Podewell (who eventually starts to crack) shows a lot of range as she does her best to reign in Penny while both women get drunk on power.

Hawking's Sarah Palin-esque Penny has crazy eyes and is ridiculous in the best possible way. The show doesn't shy from sexual innuendo — or sex — and Hawking's timing and delivery are top-notch.

Francine's new success causes a rift with her husband Jeffrey Jefferson (Leon Contavesprie), a nice-guy doctor who wants Francine to have a child and become a stay-at-home mother. Jeffrey is a pushover, a grating character who tries to build the courage to reveal a cancer diagnosis to his young patient Ben (Ben Carbo), a militant activist who takes a stand against Penny. Carbo injects his character with frantic energy and is sympathetic without being sappy. Ben's eventual friendship with Jeffrey allows for some of the funniest scenes — especially when the two make anti-Penny YouTube videos in which they wear ski masks over their heads.

Directed by Kenneth Prestininzi, the second act of the show pushes the over-the-top absurdity of political campaigns. The jokes come fast and quick and a switcheroo late in the game adds even more drama. As a political parody, the show focuses on campaign buzzwords and empty rhetoric. The Totalitarians makes a case for us to be more politically attentive.

Like any good parody, the show's message has to make us laugh so we don't hate ourselves for actually living in a smile-and-nod world where politicians are often style over substance. Without giving away the ending, some audiences may find it just too much. For me, the final scenes were a satisfying, cathartic critique of the frustrations borne from modern political campaigns.

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