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Theatre in Review: The Antelope Party (Dutch Kills Theater Company)

Edward Mawere, Caitlin Morris, Will Dagger. Photo: Bjorn Bolinder

The things one learns in this line of work: Thanks to The Antelope Party, I am now aware of the existence of "bronies," adult male fans of the TV series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and their female companions, who are known as "pegasisters." I will give you a moment to let that sink in. I didn't believe it either, until I consulted Google, and the scales fell from my eyes. There's an entire subculture out there, enough to populate a 2012 documentary, Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony. You can also find online some grisly images of middle-aged adults dressed up like Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash, among other equine cartoon characters. It's enough to make one reach for a bottle of scotch.

In the first 15 minutes or so of The Antelope Party, playwright Eric John Meyer, content with easy pickings, focuses on five MLP fans in a Western Pennsylvania town. It's funny stuff, to be sure, as these poor souls, obviously at odds with maturity, confess their mutual obsession with a TV series made for seven-year-olds. "I didn't know how to sew a costume before I met you guys," says the uber-nerd, Shawn. "I'd never done a role-playing game." Oh, the horror. Ben, the group's host, apologizes for interrupting Shawn, saying, "I'm trying to work on that color in my rainbow -- listening more, talking less." It's like a twelve-step meeting for saccharine addicts.

Because the cast, under Jess Chayes' smart direction, plays such nonsense for real, the laughs come easily. Still, one feels uneasy at the prospect of two full acts of this, especially if one has resisted the siren call of My Little Pony. (That would be most of the adult population.) But Meyer has bigger things on his mind. The bane of the bronies' existence is the local neighborhood watch group, whose members have little use for adults dressing like cartoon characters. As it happens, the neighborhood watchers have little use for nearly anyone: This gang of local brownshirts is connected to the organization of the title, which - like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys -- is dedicated to keeping the area free of so-called undesirables.

This prospect is alarming enough without the revelation that Maggie, one of the MLP group -- she likes dressing up as Princess Celestia -- is the daughter of an Antelope Party leader. Soon, sweet, winsome Maggie is arm-twisting everyone to sign "pledges of support" (including their names and addresses). Meanwhile, she and a newly empowered Shawn form a kind of Antelope power couple, their status cemented by his enthusiastic participation in a violent raid on "gutter punks." Safety is the goal, they insist. "We need to have unity," Shawn adds, bullying the others. Really? Then why do suspicion and paranoia reign in this formerly tight clique? Why are some of them sneaking off to Ohio for secret meetings? And then there's the little matter of that hostage, tied up and gagged, in Ben's living room. What's to be done with her?

You've got to admire the skill with which Meyer spins his unlikely premise into a blackly comic psychological thriller that eerily mirrors this country's tribalized state. Chayes hustles us past any implausible plot points, skillfully ratcheting up the tension she goes. The standouts in the cast are Will Dagger as Shawn, a milquetoast who develops increasingly Hitlerian tendencies, and Lindsley Howard as Maggie, whose casual, offhand manner masks an iron will. Quinn Franzen, Edward Mawere, and Caitlin Morris all have their moments, too, but special mention goes to Anna Ishida as a 9/11 truther who mistakes the MLP fans for fellow travelers and lives to regret it.

Yu-Hsuan Chen's wood-paneled living room set is packed with surprises that take us to several other locations; check out the rainbow curtains, one of Ben's home d├ęcor touches. Costume designer Kate Fry has a good time creating various sparkly, multicolored outfits. Lighting designer Cha See similarly derives her palette in part from the MLP universe. Asa Wember's sound design includes a genuinely unsettling stampede that seems to move through the auditorium.

"I just want people to be safe," says Rachel, Morris' character, late in the play. By then, trust has vanished, mayhem has been committed, and lives are at stake. As depiction of social breakdown in miniature, The Antelope Party feels eerily on target. For these characters, it is fascism, not friendship, that is magic. --David Barbour

(12 November 2021)

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