The Totalitarians

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November 11, 2014

"The Totalitarians": Power, Politics and Paranoia

In one of the first scenes in San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s latest comedy, “The Totalitarians,” the central character—a strung-out campaign manager named Francine—is sitting in her bedroom in her underwear with pen and notepad. She’s frantically trying to come up with a slogan for her candidate, Penny Easter, who’s running for lieutenant governor in Nebraska and whose big speech is the following night. “Freedom. Freedom. Freedom!” mutters Francine. “Freedom plus. New Freedom. Freedommm. Real Freedom. Grade A freedom, freedom is the best, hell yeah freedom, liberating freedom, helping free freedom, help yourself to a helping of freedom. Freedom from. Freedom from freedom from…Freedom from …what?” She tries out various possibilities: “Despair. Danger. Terror. Hatred. Blight. Crime. Animals. Sex. Sabotage, disappointment, failure, shame, regrets, freedom from…life?”

“Freedom from death?” suggests her mild-mannered doctor husband, Jeffrey.

“It needs to be feasible. Vaguely feasible,” snaps Francine. It also needs to be three words. And it needs to be right for the candidate, who, as Francine says, has great hair, “no experience, no intelligence, and a perfect track record for saying the wrong thing.”

“But you like what she stands for?” asks Jeffrey encouragingly.

“She’s waiting for me to tell her what she stands for,” replies Francine.

Part political satire, part farce, part black comedy, “The Totalitarians” opens this month at San Francisco’s Z Space, where Nachtrieb is a resident playwright. He developed the play with his frequent collaborator Ken Prestininzi, an erstwhile San Francisco director/playwright who teaches acting, performance studies, American drama and playwriting at Connecticut College.

“It’s obviously a political satire,” says Nachtrieb, whose “T.I.C.: Trenchcoat in Common,” also directed by Prestininzi, was a hit for Z Space in 2009. “But it’s also a story about a couple pulled apart when they start to believe two different things about this one candidate. I wanted to make it as much about that couple and that relationship as about the whole political story. You have these two real people who get sucked into this farce and you see how that wrecks them for most of the play.” He set the action in Nebraska because, he says, it’s a larger-than-life play and he wanted to pick a state that most people, including him, don’t know—although he did interview a bunch of Nebraskans to get a sense

of what’s important to them. He laughs at the irony: “This is a play all about believing facts, and I didn’t do a diligent research trip to the state! It’s my own notion of what Nebraska is!”

The concept for the play began with a general idea—which he pitched to New Dramatists, the New York organization for national playwrights, of which both he and Prestininzi are members—about “language and politics and lying and believing,” and how whether something is actually true or not may have nothing to do with what people believe. His pitch was chosen for a commission. Lisa Steindler, artistic director of Z Space, signed on for the third leg of what is a rolling world premiere that opened at New Orleans’ Southern Rep and continued on to the famed Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. Prestininzi directed the Southern Rep version of the play and directs it here as well. At each stop on the play’s journey, Nachtrieb continued to tweak the script as he worked with new cast members. The San Francisco production features local actors Alexis Lezin as the ambitious Francine, Liam Vincent as her beleaguered husband, Jamie Jones as Penny and Andrew Houmann as a paranoid “aspiring revolutionary” determined to destroy the chuckle-headed candidate by any means necessary.

In creating the outrageously narcissistic and malapropism-spouting Penny, Nachtrieb thought of both Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. “I tried to make her a little mysterious about exactly where she stands politically,” he says, “but a lot of Bachmann is in there, and sometimes even this Obama-ish oratory starts to kick in.”

As the story evolves, things spin disastrously out of control for all four idiosyncratic characters. Nachtrieb’s an old hand at crafting oddballs. (“I try to write characters I’d want to play,” he has said.) A veteran of the MFA playwriting program at San Francisco State and a Brown University graduate in theater and biology, he wrote sketches for San Francisco’s comedy troupe Killing My Lobster, where he also premiered the award-winning “Hunter Gatherers” in 2006. His plays have been seen off-Broadway and at theaters in Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta and elsewhere, as well as with various companies here in the Bay Area.

Nachtrieb and Prestininzi hooked up eight years ago, when Prestininzi directed Nachtrieb’s play “boom.” They consider themselves to be a solid team now. “Peter really writes for a kind of truthful vaudeville experience of U.S. culture,” muses Prestininzi. “And actors just come alive with his work. . . He’s got this Stanley Kubrick, precise mind. Nothing can be sloppy or generalized. At the same time, he sees people as vulnerable. The world has forces that will crush us! He’s amazed that anybody makes it out alive!” He laughs. “We all connect to that. Yet we’re so tenacious at the core, like cockroaches.”

He sees the two main threads of “The Totalitarians” as man’s fear of powerlessness (Jeffrey is all too easily convinced of his wife’s dangerous agenda) and woman’s desire for more power. He also sees two different ways into the play: through the thorny relationship between the married couple, and through the creation of the Frankenstein’s monster that is Penny. There’s also, he points out, the unholy alliance between Penny the candidate and Francine her speech writer. “The idea of who creates our candidates was fascinating,” he says. He observes that in every scene in the play the relationship between power and paranoia shifts.

Nachtrieb guesses that some audience members find the play disturbing; it pulls no punches in its vision of an American political campaign that’s gone totally off the rails. “For people who have worked on political campaigns,” he says, 
“maybe it hits a little close to home.”

Ultimately, by the time he’d finished the first draft of the script, Nachtrieb had seized upon the meaningless sound-bite slogan that Francine was so desperately seeking: “Freedom From Fear.” She instructs Penny to incite the crowd to raise their fists and chant in unison “FFF!” “Freedom is good and fear is scary, and that combination makes you feel both hopeful and nervous,” Nachtrieb says with delight. The chant evolved organically as he was working on the scene, but then he did some research and discovered that “The Four Freedoms” was a slogan that FDR used in a 1941 State of the Union address—number 4 was “freedom from fear.” “It’s been used!” Nachtrieb marvels, of the nonsensical yet powerfully evocative phrase.

Nov. 19 → Dec. 14

The Totalitarians

Z Space

450 Florida St., 866/811-4111

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