Imagine a politician as stupid as Michele Bachmann (complete with the gay hubbie), who speaks in Sarah Palin word salads as she pontificates racist screeds like Donald Trump full of the bat-shit crazy ideas of Ben Carson, and you have the hysterically scary demagogue Penelope Easter (Tina Parker) in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians, given an hilariously snappy production courtesy of Kitchen Dog Theater. Penny, at least, isn’t running for president; she’s more Jodi Ernst, a gun-totin’’, under-educated kook in the corner of Nebraska running a hopeless campaign for lieutenant governor in a state with more cows than voters.
Hopeless, that is, until her campaign manager Francine (Leah Spillman) — a disgruntled James Carville wannabe stuck in the Midwest because that’s where her milquetoast husband Jeffrey (Max Hartman) set up his medical practice — stumbles upon a slogan that resonates with the cornfed proletariat. She writes a stump speech that, despite its stream-of-consciousness nonsensical rants (“My opponent, with his bullet-proof Cadillac and access to medicine, doesn’t understand you!”) makes a player out of Penny … and potentially starts a Fascist movement to take over the country. (“Don’t feed the plants!” Little Shop of Horrors warned us; “Don’t feed the politicians!” is the message here.)
Nachtrieb excels at absurdist theater that eventually goes over the top, but remains grounded enough in the real world that we can clearly see the targets of his genial venom. When Jeffrey and one of his patients (Drew Wall, doing psycho as well as anybody) realize they may be the only ones who recognize the danger Penny poses — and Francine for that matter, who is made craven by the sweet nectar of long-delayed success — they launch a 12 Monkeys guerrilla movement.
The tight, four-actor cast are all playing their wheelhouses, from Parker’s fearless, endlessly funny mania tinged with innocence (she’s as physical a comedian as any actress in Dallas) to Spillman’s uptight Modern Woman to Hartman’s sardonic schlubiness. Director Christopher Carlos has never been so nimble with comedy, and milks every last laugh out of Nachtrieb’s smart script, which is more timely than seems possible. Indeed, at this point in the election cycle, it’s both a salve and a fright to see that satire doesn’t just play out on the stages of North Texas; it’s also on the national stages of the Republican debates. Be afraid.
The Green Zone, 161 Riveredge. Through Dec. 19. KitchenDogTheater.org
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 27, 2015.