My country patented, undefeated land of doublespeak, of thee Sam Shepard wrote.
The playwright, known for his Gothic depictions of the American West, penned The God of Hell in the summer of 2004 and insisted that the unsettling dark comedy be produced in the days just preceding that year’s presidential election. He described it as his take on “Republican fascism.”
Like many a Shepard play, The God of Hell centers on agro-type folk — you know, Real Americans — and pivots on the arrival of unexpected guests. But here the private lives of his protagonists, contented Wisconsin dairy farmers Frank and Emma, aren’t threatened by the inevitable unearthing of a sinister family secret by an outsider. If their little plot of the American Dream is to be thwarted, it will be by the invasion of the all-powerful American Corporation represented by Welch, a government agent and peddler of “patriotism” who bursts onto the scene hocking stars-and-stripes-frosted oatmeal cookies while Frank is out tending to his heifers. Livestock may be at the forefront of Frank’s mind, but the playwright’s is fixated on images from Abu Ghraib and that goose chase for Weapons of Mass Destruction sold under the friendly brand “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Indeed, The God of Hell is so overtly in and of its own time, it makes for an unusual programming choice on the part of the Rose Theatre Company. Is it passe to produce it a mere six years later, or is it already necessary to relive American nightmares from which we think we’ve awoken?
The God of Hell opens on Frank (Bobby Perkins), in overalls, polishing his work boots like a pro, while Emma (Deborah Basham-Burns), putters about like a zombie in a bathrobe, obsessively watering her houseplants. Not a word passes between them for minutes, until at last Emma broaches the subject of their mysterious visitor, her husband’s old friend Haynes (David Maloof), who is still asleep in the basement.
Emma doesn’t have the pleasure of meeting their permitted guest before an unwelcome one arrives. Welch (Jon Smith) personally sings out a more irritating “Ding-dong!” than any bell possibly could, then enthusiastically pops his arm and treat-bearing hand through the front door like a prairie dog up from a hole in the ground.
A big, loud, drawling, smarmy, and dubious character, Welch is as comfortable infringing upon Emma’s personal space as he is trespassing in her home. He runs circles around the aging woman with his words, and Smith, a towering performer with almost enough oil in his greased-back hair to warrant a Google crisis-response page, is loving every minute of it. Why, this is a household in the wholesome state of taxidermy (he raises one hand) and cheese (he raises the other, then slaps them together, mating them with robust satisfaction), is it not? How is it that there is no material proof of American pride? Why no flag-waving outside? No Mt. Rushmore tchotchke in the living room? By the by, how many rooms are in your house?
This is one step too far, but Emma, so meek and slow-to-anger as portrayed by the slight Basham-Burns, is easily drawn into a tussle over words, and so she is by Welch, who winkles the information out of her by way of a debate over whether a basement is in fact a room. (“What else would you call it?” he asks. “A basement,” she counters.) It so happens he does want to flush out something Frank and Emma are hiding — poor Haynes, runaway test-subject torture victim.
Maloof’s Haynes could be the lovechild of Ed Helms and Sean Hayes, if such a thing were possible. When not thoughtfully turning his coffee in its mug, Maloof demonstrates his character’s panic in a broadly humorous, angular way by cocking his head, jolting his arms up, and smiling falsely and instantly. He plays to the audience in a way none of the other actors do. However the unfortunate side effect of these choices is that when he learns that Welch is closing in on him, it’s difficult to take his fear seriously.
And he does have serious reason to fear, as do sensitive theatergoers. For no one could question the horror of the slick 90-minute play’s final moments, after Welch giddily adorns Frank and Emma’s living room with red, white, and blue banners — eerily fancy-free with a staple gun — and drags a bag-headed Haynes up to the main floor via a wire attached to his junk.
“There is no memory,” Welch bemoans, early on, of our nation’s lack of remembrance for the losses we suffered, and the battles we won, to keep our “rampant freedom” intact. The God of Hell is a surreal and poignant reminder of the horror we once permitted, the rights we were talked into forsaking, to the same end. •
God of Hell
Through Jun 26
The Rose Theatre Co.