For lovers of funny, sexy, layered, generous, surprising comic performances, it’s morning in America.
Or at least in the self-selecting sliver of it catered to by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where Emily Townley’s stringent and sublime turn as Penelope Easter—the vapid but cunning ex-roller-derby-queen-turned-office-seeker at the center of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s scattershot political farce The Totalitarians—shouldn’t be missed. Initially, Penny seems like a too-easy amalgam of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, what with her white cowboy boots and jeans with her initials bedazzled on her behind, her MILF-y coquetry (and hair), her five kids, her rich husband with what she terms “a bit of a back-door problem,” and her penchant for malapropism: “Sometimes things just come in my mouth wrong,” she explains.
Indeed. But because hard-partying, casually bisexual Penelope emerges as a genuine hedonist, rather than someone for whom sex is merely currency, she is for all her venomousness still the most appealing character in Nachtrieb’s tart four-hander by a mile.
The play follows an election in Nebraska, I think for governor, although the details are abstracted enough that it’s easy not to notice—and Nachtrieb’s point about the emptiness and interchangeability of American political rhetoric is well-served by this confusion.
Elsewhere his fuzzy focus seems less deliberate, as though he isn’t sure whether his target should be our fragile experiment in representative democracy or the sexual mores that keep people wound dangerously tight. He seems to have opted for C: All of the above.
But two towering comic performances make Robert O’Hara’s “rolling world premiere” production a must-see: Townley’s, plus Dawn Ursula’s as Francine Jefferson, a campaign manager who sees Penelope as an obedient blank canvas on which she can paint her ticket out of Nebraska. The piece opens with Francine rolling around in bed in her underwear, oblivious to her simpering husband’s pleas for sex as she tries to come up with an indelible three-word campaign slogan. “Freedom From Fear” is the pithy nothing she lands on. Or, since nobody has time for that mouthful: “Fuh Fuh Fuh.” (It’s the economy of phrasing, stupid.) Eventually, music and sound designer Lindsay Jones will use the weird sound of a crowd chanting “fuh fuh fuh” as suspense-stoking percussion.
This isn’t a barely exaggerated, in-the-trenches satire the way, say, Veep is. Like boom, the Nachtrieb play about an apocalyptic tryst that Woolly staged in 2008, it’s a more of an absurdist provocation. And like Democracy in America, it suggests a foreigner’s attempt to chart the customs of a beguiling place.
Which is exactly what it is. Lincoln, Neb., is the put-upon middle American city the San Francisco–based Nachtrieb chose as the site for his odd tale because, according to a note in the program from Production Dramaturg Kirsten Bowen, its presumed unfamiliarity gave him license “to construct his own dark and extreme reality: a recognizable but fantastical Nebraska of the mind.” Nebraska doesn’t look too inviting in Alexander Payne’s movies, either, but at least he grew up there.
The show’s two men don’t fare nearly as well as the women. It’s tough to blame Nicholas Loumos or Sean Meehan for failing to connect with their roughed-in roles as electrically as Townley and Ursula animate theirs. Meehan plays Jeffrey, Francine’s milquetoast physician husband. He wants a baby—a tall order, considering that his wife hasn’t wanted to screw him in months. (Maybe he needs a better game than asking, “What if I impregnated you right now?”) The poor guy can’t even find the guts to do his job and deliver the bad news when he discovers that a 20-year-old patient of his, Loumos’ Ben, has untreatable cancer and will be dead in a matter of months. As Francine falls under Penny’s spell (and vice versa), Jeffrey falls under Ben’s, coaxed into joining the boy’s mask-wearing, video manifesto–issuing “resistance movement” that meets in the sewers. Like a lot of militia groups, their mission is vague but their potential for violence very real. That gives the show a sense of urgency, but not enough to cover for the fact the scenes with just the two dudes are tedious momentum-killers.
Much better is when Townley gets to work the room, addressing the audience as though we’re all attending a rally.
The production seems almost too Max Headroom-y for its own good. Video designer Jared Mezzocchi has created townhouse-sized Townleys to project against Misha Kachman’s sleek, uncluttered set. For the finale, there’s a cutout of Nebraska’s capitol building, which looks even more phallic than it did already by virtue of being turned on its side and flown in horizontally from stage right. Penny, decked out in a military-style jacket and armband like Richard III or an even less popular, more enterprising murderous head of state, ascends a tall stepladder to address a rally, only to suffer a humiliation-via-sabotaged-teleprompter that’s straight of out Anchorman. But the stage picture screams The Totalitarians: Turn Off the Dark. Giant wang or no, that imposing set dampens the funny.
Still, it’s an arresting show, astute in its equation of political ambition with sexual frustration. That’s strange we can believe in.
By Lafcadio Hearn; adapted by Richard Henrich and Izumi Ashizawa
Directed by Izumi Ashizawa
At Spooky Action Theater to June 22
Spooky Action Theater has never done a better job of living up to its name than in its fleet and haunting Kwaidan. Adapted from a collection of traditional Japanese ghost tales compiled by Lafcadio Hearn, the show conjures up an otherworldly atmosphere that makes it intoxicating even though the narrative particulars of at least a few of the 15 (!) weird vignettes it weaves into a single hour remain opaque. Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 film Kwaidan was nearly three times as long and contained only four of the stories touched on here.
David Gaines, the Ecole Jacques Lecoq–trained mime whose Looney Tunes–style one-man show 7(x1) Samurai was a highlight of the 2008 Capital Fringe Festival, plays it straight in this stage version as Hearn—a Greek-born, Dublin-raised writer who emigrated to the U.S. at 19 and then to Japan at 40, becoming a naturalized citizen and remaining there until his death. (The other six actors in the ensemble, which includes Jennifer Knight, Jacob Yeh, and Philip Chang, are all Japanese-Americans.)
Like the audience, Gaines enters the lobby of the Universal National Memorial Church and is asked to sign the register as though the space is an inn. The script, by Spooky Action’s artistic leader, Richard Henrich, and director Izumi Ashizawa, is built from the clever conceit that the final book Hearn published before his death in 1904 was not a collection of Japanese folktales he’d translated but rather a reported account of bizarre events he’d witnessed. (In addition to the ghost stuff, it included three nonfiction essays about insects native to Japan, so who knows?) We witness these strange occurrences along with him, encountering samurais and priests and cotton weavers and wandering musicians, each with their own story to tell.
Though Spooky Action has made its home at Universal National Memorial for four years, this is the first time it has invited audiences beyond its usual performance space in the basement. Ashizawa has designed Kwaidan as a processional-format show in which the audience follows the performers from room to room. Silent, kimono-clad guides indicate via gesture when to proceed and where to sit or stand, as actors sometimes enter their scenes from unexpected directions. Set and lighting designers Czerton Lim and Brian S. Allard, respectively, ably use the candles-and-skulls, scrims-and-silhouettes Halloween haunted house toolkit to transform this beautiful, neo-gothic church into a menacing and unknowable place. Neil McFadden’s sound design, meanwhile, makes the space rumble and breathe, augmented by chimes and singing or moaning from the actors. Ashizawa designed the handsome feudal-era robes, puppets, and masks herself.
As a narrative experience, this Kwaidan imparts a desire to explore (or revisit) the stories it represents. As a sensual one, it’s a richly gratifying experience in its own right. It’s only too bad Spooky Action couldn’t wait for the cooler, shorter days of October to bring Ashizawa’s arresting vision to life, because only the latest performances on the schedule, which begin at 8:30 p.m., will take place after sunset. Some stories are better told in darkness.