Armed with their very own My Little Pony figurines as energetic, 90s-tastic theme music and lights play and flash on stage, audience members of Theatre Wit’s world premiere The Antelope Party are encouraged to buy into the assumption that what they are about to witness will be a light-hearted comedy about frenetic pony fans. By the time we reach the end of Act I, though, something sinister threatens the once vibrant atmosphere onstage, and some of our fun-loving characters have morphed from ponies to antelopes.
Yes, antelopes. Eric John Meyer’s play uses this deer-like animal as the device which the lower middle class residents of a small town latch onto, creating a new narrative about how society was formed and shaped. Of course, this narrative identifies its “coyotes” aka “enemies,” and justifies violence against these individuals trying to destroy our “great country.” While the animal nomenclature may make this idea appear a bit far-fetched, the story is similar to that presented in Sinclair Lewis’ once again popular It Can’t Happen Here--an examination of how fascism consumes a society through techniques like blaming, ostracizing, and fear-mongering.
And, for the most part, this darkly comedic play succeeds in showcasing how fascist ideas can grow and fester. Certain characters’ transformations (of which I won’t mention more for fear of spoilers) are both wholly shocking and frighteningly expected, as these ideals tend to prey on those most hungry for power and a stronger sense of self.
Where the play missteps a bit, for me, is in the dichotomy between the Rust Belt Ponies Meet Up Group, the initially lovable band of Bronies that begins the show, and The Antelope Party. A press release touts that we will find out whether our ‘heros’ can see “the magic in Everypony,” a teaser which suggests that we will see the ideals juxtaposed against one another--that the characters’ adoration for My Little Pony will somehow play a larger role or will be juxtaposed more as The Antelope Party develops. Yet, the Pony references diminished too quickly to allow for what might have been an interesting, especially in terms of dark comedy, play between the two ideals. The Rust Belt Ponies Meet Up Group felt like a funny setting to begin this venture instead of a major through-line in the play.
Other areas, like how race and sex play into The Antelope Party and its atrocities, are also swept under the rug too quickly. They’re briefly touched on without delving far enough into just what this might mean for our play’s characters.
That being said, the actors did a stellar job instilling what could easily have been over the top characters with a level of depth and nuance. Will Allan (Shawn) stands out in his role as the overly energetic yet painfully shy one in the group desperately searching for his self-worth. Edward Mawere (Ben) brings both a lovable and a deeply sad quality to his character, and Mary Winn Heider shines as the adorably awkward newcomer to the group.
The set, lighting, and sound design work perfectly for the show too. The small space is filled with adorable My Little Pony memorabilia, showcasing the joy at the play’s beginning but working well later on to create a vibe of cheerfully-veiled malevolence.
Though this play still could use some breaking in, it’s definitely not just horsing around either. The Antelope Party preys on the fears all liberal Americans have been forced to face in the last troubling year. This is a dark comedy that rings all too true.
Review by Emily Schmidt
The Antelope Party continues through February 24 at Theater Wit. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.