‘The Totalitarians’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

There are times in life when the truth can be hard and there will be darkness, but seek the light! Freedom from fear! The campaign slogan pumping on everyone’s fists, hissing from everyone’s lips—it’s a total invasion as Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company closes out Season 34— America’s Tell-Tale Heart—with their production of The Totalitarians. A wild political satire that leaves you sore from laughing, this brilliant new work written by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is part of a rolling world premier where Woolly’s stage becomes it’s secondary stop. Directed by company member and Mellon playwright in residence Robert O’Hara, the absurdity of politics comes face-to-face with the audiences of Washington DC in one of the most intensely insane pieces of comic writing to take the stage in a very long time.

Emily Townley. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Emily Townley. Photo by Stan Barouh.

A signature feature of any production mounted at Woolly Mammoth is the versatility with which they utilize the space. Much like the originality of the works they produce, no two stage setups are ever exactly the same and The Totalitarians is no exception to that wondrous rule. Set Designer Misha Kachman, working with Video Designer Jared Mezzocchi, creates an astonishing set that enables the play to shift locations fluidly without the elaborate trappings of heavy scenic elements. The sliding wall panel that takes the stage from a vast open platform to a secluded and intimate bedroom is a clever move on Kachman’s behalf. Mezzocchi uses the blank planes of these sliding walls to project images of both interior and exterior surroundings taking the play from places like Jeff’s examination room to the great outdoors of Nebraska and back. The unity of Mezzocchi and Kachman’s work speaks for itself in the aesthetic of the production, a visionary way to move forward and keep the set refreshing.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz deserves recognition for the hideously fabulous outfits he finds for candidate Penny Easter. Giving her a true redneck hillbilly flare with all the rhinestone studded jackets and her signature skinny jeans with sparkling full-name monogram letters on each ass pocket, Labovitz cultivates the roots of Penny Easter’s character for the audience to see bright as day before she ever even opens her mouth. Even the camouflage fatigues are spotted with bejazzled type jewels to make Penny look like a sparkly backwoods mom from the great state of Nebraska.  All of Labovitz’ creative concoctions culminate the epitome of stupidity in the overall look of Penny Easter; a perfect parallel to the character’s mind frame.

The pacing for the show is surprisingly light; moving quickly from scene to scene without lingering in any one location for too long. This is true of virtually every scene in the production because the character relationships develop organically and the natural chemistries— of both the good and bad variety— burble so flawlessly between just about everyone.

While Meehan and the two principle female actors are playing their characters in constant heightened states of existence— even when still or silent the perpetual frenetic energy is bouncing wildly inside of them and can still be felt— Loumos’ character portrayal never surges into something quite so energetic. The mismatch in cast energies leaves scenes where he is involved feeling out of place with the otherwise rapid moving flow of the show. Loumos’ character also feels slightly underdeveloped. While to his credit he physically develops the spastic twitches of a paranoid personality, he never fully articulates a voice for the character.

Director Robert O’Hara works moments of genuine humor into the production by encouraging the actors to take their situation seriously. The more serious the confrontations between Jeffrey (Sean Meehan) and Francine (Dawn Ursula) are the more hilarious they become to watch. The same can be said for the stupidity that flows like Niagara Falls from Penny Easter’s (Emily Townley) lips. All of these notions of authenticity and focusing on the subtextual issues at hand allow for the true nature of the satire to rise to the surface of the performance and leaves the audience in stitches for its entertainment value.

Meehan, as the very nerdy and uncertain meager man, brings a fully developed character to the stage. In his initial scenes with Ursula’s character, Meehan captures the epitome of slightly flustered and definitely horny house husband; everything from his body language to his strained inflection when speaking pointing to his very obvious needs and desires from his wife. The dynamic nature with which Meehan approaches the character’s change of heart is shocking, transforming him from a mouse to a man and back in the course of the production. When falling into the pit of conspiracy, Meehan transforms the character into a tweaked out nervous wreck whose physicality becomes spastic and his vocal delivery becomes uproarious.

Ursula, as the wildly engaging Francine, plays the part of the frustrated campaign manager just trying to carve out a niche of her own success along the way. Ursula is exceptionally talented when it comes to stirring up emotions and making people feel things. Whether it’s tickling the audience’s funny bone with her outrageous facial expressions or allowing us to discover the fear when she takes up the crossbow and drops her voice a few octaves; Ursula connects with the audience on multiple levels and delivers a sensational performance in this captivating role. Her personality is constantly ablaze with emotional energy, suffusing her feelings into every gesture made with her body, every speech blasted from her lips, Ursula stuns the audience with her dynamic portrayal.

(left to right): Dawn Ursula (Francine), Emily Townley )(Penelope). Photo by Stan Barouh.
(left to right): Dawn Ursula (Francine), Emily Townley )(Penelope). Photo by Stan Barouh.

But it’s Penny Easter (Emily Townley) who leaves the audience gasping in shock. While Ursula’s performance is riveting, Townley’s portrayal of the empty-headed politician is downright mesmerizing. It’s stupidity presented as an art form wherein the sad reality is that real life politicians have sounded equally as ludicrous and equally as laughable. Townley’s portrayal of this country bumpkin, weapon-toting, speaks-before-thinking gubernatorial candidate is hysterical. It makes Sarah Palin look qualified to run Mensa. It is alarming how well Townley can energize the audience with the stupid things her character says. The laughter doesn’t stop when Townley delivers the “campaign is like a first date” speech; her ability to make this character a reality hits the audience with such relativity that it’s impossible not to laugh. Townley is an absolute hoot; a knockout when it comes to comic timing and delivery; as shiny in this role as the rhinestones all over her outfits.

Become informed. Find your freedom from fear— or in this case from the great state of Nebraska— before it’s too late. You’ll never believe the ending unless you see it, that in and of itself should be exceptional motivation to purchase tickets and investigate this brilliant political satire.

Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission.

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The Totalitarians plays through June 29, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company— 641 D Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.

An interview with Director Robert O’Hara.


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