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|A CurtainUp Review
God of Hell (a comedy in 3 scenes)
Doesn't sound like a play you'd subtitle a comedy does it? But while this comedy in 3 scenes is more surreal, scary thriller à la Rod Serling than the ha-ha-ha Mario Cantone, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal shows with which Broadway is currently regaling escape minded audiences, the tag line fits, at least early on. The tag relates more to Balzac's La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) as described by Friedrich Engel: ". . . Balzac was politically a legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the irreparable decay of good society. . ." That's not to imply that this 80-minute play can be compared to Balzac's epic and brilliantly satirical work. For that matter, written as it was in the heat of political passion, it's not polished enough to be put in a class with Shepard's own best work like Buried Child True West and Fool for Love
God of Hell was written last summer and described by the author as "a takeoff on Republican facism." Shepard wanted to have it e seen before people pulled the voting lever on November 2nd. However, a new play, no matter how timely or how well-known the name above the title, usually doesn't make it from page to stage that fast and so Shepard opted to have New School University produce it for a limited run.
This small scale production of Mr. Shepard's wakeup call about the dangers posed by another four years with the present administration did begin performances a few days before the election though most of its run post-dates it. But no matter. The administration the playwright forewarns against is still in charge leaving it up to plays like this to persuade people to be more active citizens in order to prevent the play's dire predictions about America as Orwell's worst nightmare from coming to pass.
No doubt most of the people rushing to nab a ticket before the November 28th closing are likely to share Shepard's pessimism and disgust. Therefore, like many political polemics, this is a case of preaching to the choir. It's thus older, well-aged political satires about newly relevant past events that are likely to draw audiences from a wider political spectrum. (An example is the brilliant current adaptation of The Good Soldier Svejk written in 1923 -- also reviewed this week-- Svejk).
The stray Republicans and pro-administration domestic and foreign policy folks who may wander into the 120-seat theater are unlikely to give The God of Hell a standing ovation -- still, even they might swallow hard when Welch tells Emma "You didn't think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?" Whatever one's political leanings, there's sure to be agreement on one point -- the production couldn't have a better cast.
Randy Quaid and J. Smith-Cameron embody the ordinariness of a Wisconsin farm couple. Quaid is terrific as Frank, a good-natured galoot, a man of few words who probably loves his heifers as much as his wife. Smith-Cameron's Emma convincingly embodies a woman who's never lived anywhere but the shabby farmhouse in which the drama unfolds. She is the American Heartland, or what's left of it. She deals with winter's fierce cold and isolation (and her never explained childlessness?) by lavishing much attention on the plants that dominate her home. Quaid's transformation from cattleman to blue-suited automaton is appallingly riveting.
Tim Roth, who's no stranger to villain roles (Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs) , is spine-chillingly spooky as the play's "Republican facist" -- a government official named Welch whose knock on the door brings an end to Emma and Frank's uneventful existence. Welch's name may be a sly inside joke since Welch is the name of the man who started the right wing John Birch Society. As the fourth character, a fugitive from a vaguely identified government agency, probably some sort of nuclear laboratory, Frank Wood is an eerie new version of Orwell's ill-fated Winston in 1984. In fact, the scene when things turn from ominous to horrendous, and Welch's aggressiveness turns into psychotic cruelty, are remarkably reminiscent of Orwell's futuristic novel.
Director Lou Jacob can be credited for keeping the tension high even though the end is all too predicable. The stagecraft too is fine, with all the elements in place for a typically messy Shepard finale. Instead of the refrigerator's contents spilled all over the floor the final image is a triple metaphor for the author's concerns: American flags that have come to represent unquestioning loyalty to the powers that be; wilted plants symbolizing damaging environmental practices and paper money to evoke our bankrupt economic policies.
As I walked out of last Sunday's matinee performance it was still daylight and I could see the Hudson River at the end of the street. The lovely river view and late afternoon sun replaced the tension generated by the grim view of the American landscape just witnessed and prompted a twinge of optimism. After all, with enough artists like Sam Shepard to employ their talents to nudge complacent Americans into being more actively involved in seeing to it that the Welches of this world can't grab more and more power, the Armageddon depicted in God of Hell will remain a cautionary tale.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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