Theater: A ‘Total’ Hit

Mill Valley native returns to Bay Area for ‘The Totalitarians’

by Charles Brousse

If a blend of Monte Python and Saturday Night Live, punctuated by a bloody tongue-in-cheek nod to The Sopranos in the closing minutes, sounds like an appealing format for political satire that has some serious messages to impart, then you should hurry on down to San Francisco’s Z Space. There, in a cozy venue once occupied by The Jewish Theatre, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians is entering the final two weekends of what is being called a “rolling world premiere” sponsored by the National New Play Network, whose mission is to enable playwrights to work with member companies to develop promising scripts that will be produced in at least three of their theaters around the country.

Nachtrieb’s bio is a local-boy-makes-good story. Raised in Mill Valley, he, after graduating from Marin Academy, earned a double degree in biology and theater from Rhode Island’s Brown University, then returned to California for an M.F.A. in creative writing at San Francisco State. His breakthrough was Hunter Gatherers (2007), an edgy look at the primitive urges that compete with accepted social norms in the psyches of today’s upwardly mobile professionals. Lauded for its originality, the play won that year’s coveted Steinberg Award on a national level and the Will Glickman Prize for best new play here in the Bay Area. Since then, a series of satires that explore the contradictions that bedevil contemporary American society and threaten its future have firmly established his position among this generation of young dramatists.f a blend of Monte Python and Saturday Night Live, punctuated by a bloody tongue-in-cheek nod to The Sopranos in the closing minutes, sounds like an appealing format for political satire that has some serious messages to impart, then you should hurry on down to San Francisco’s Z Space. There, in a cozy venue once occupied by The Jewish Theatre, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians is entering the final two weekends of what is being called a “rolling world premiere” sponsored by the National New Play Network, whose mission is to enable playwrights to work with member companies to develop promising scripts that will be produced in at least three of their theaters around the country.If a blend of Monte Python and Saturday Night Live, punctuated by a bloody tongue-in-cheek nod to The Sopranos in the closing minutes, sounds like an appealing format for political satire that has some serious messages to impart, then you should hurry on down to San Francisco’s Z Space. There, in a cozy venue once occupied by The Jewish Theatre, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians is entering the final two weekends of what is being called a “rolling world premiere” sponsored by the National New Play Network, whose mission is to enable playwrights to work with member companies to develop promising scripts that will be produced in at least three of their theaters around the country.

In the hands of director Ken Prestininzi and a group of actors who seem joyfully in sync with the author, The Totalitarians is about as representative an example of Nachtrieb’s distinctive writing style as could be wished for. According to the program, the setting is “Some version of Nebraska” in “The not too distant future. Which is much like the present.” What you see, however, in scenic designer Giulio Cesare Perrone’s garishly modern set is a nearly empty room with peach-colored walls, a tomato-red floor on which are scattered torn pages of note paper and a queen-sized bed backed against an arched cutout in the rear wall whose interior deep blue lighting allows characters to suddenly emerge as if they’ve popped out of an undersea cave. Obviously, this isn’t the Nebraska you and I think of, with waving fields of corn, but it certainly is appropriate for the events that follow.

Like the Pythons and SNL, Nachtrieb has never cared much about plots unfolding in linear fashion or characters being consistent in thoughts and actions. The Totalitarians is no exception. What storyline there is revolves around the lieutenant governor candidacy of Penelope Easter (Jamie Jones), a former roller derby champ and mother of four, whose intellectual acumen is roughly comparable to a certain vice presidential nominee in our 2008 national election. Francine (Alexis Lezin) is her campaign manager who hopes to share the candidate’s ascent to power by providing “catchy” slogans like “Freedom from fear.” Jeffrey (Liam Vincent) is Francine’s doctor-husband, beset by his wife’s obsessive ambitions, growing doubts about his sexual identity, and anxiety stemming from an inability to inform a young patient that he has a terminal illness. Finally, there’s Ben (Andrew Humann), the deeply troubled, conspiracy-driven cancer patient who is the catalyst for the play’s bloody climax.

As the chain of absurdies lengthens and audience laughter subsides, it’s obvious that Nachtrieb has more than light entertainment on his mind. Effective social satire requires that situations and characters be oversized, but the underlying issues remain clearly visible. The Totalitarians, especially when given such a solid production as that currently at Z Space, accomplishes this. At the same time, however, there’s a bit of a musty feeling about the whole enterprise—a lack of surprise—as if we’ve seen it all before, both in real life and on the stage. It should be noted that on the night I attended, the under-30s in the audience (and there were many) cheered wildly at play’s end.  

Charles can be reached at [email protected].

NOW PLAYING

The Totalitarians runs through Sunday, Dec. 14 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Information: 866/811-4111, or www.zspace.org.

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