The God of Hell
Reno, NV 89501
Is it me or is it a little too soon to open a Bush-era time capsule? For those already nostalgic for the good old days of our 43rd President’s administration, look no further than Brüka Theatre’s new production of The God of Hell, directed by Tom Plunkett. Such a simplification reduces the play to something smaller than its true scope, but its themes of us-versus-them propaganda, suffocating faux patriotism and playground-bully diplomacy have an all-too familiar ring to them.
Sam Shepard’s play, which is a direct response to post-9/11 politics, centers around the unassuming farmer Frank (Adam Neace) and his wife, Emma (Sandra Neace), who have 21st century trouble arrive at their rural doorstep in the form of Frank’s old friend Haynes (Scott Dundas). It seems Haynes is on the run from something sinister, and it takes shape in the form of Welch, an intimidating stranger. Is he a dangerous government operative? Is he a zealous charlatan peddling cheap patriotic swag? Is there a difference? Shepard’s play has fun with these and other questions, and it seems more concerned with asking than answering. Like the previous eight years of American politics, the play will disappoint those hoping for some kind of satisfaction, just desserts, or even plain old accountability.
Calling The God of Hell a dark comedy is like describing Slayer as a soft rock outfit. This thing is so pitch-black that if you’re still laughing at the end, the joke is probably on you. This isn’t to say the play lacks humor, just that when satirical wordplay gives way to out-and-out torture, comedic value might no longer be the best measure of the play’s effectiveness. A better barometer is how crisp and tight the cast is able to keep things within the darkening storm of the plot. At their best, the actors maintain the sharp edge that Shepard’s script deserves. When the actors aren’t on the same page, which is occasionally—or at least it was on opening night—the effect is more akin to a blunt object than to a scalpel.
Though the machine of the cast is not yet as well oiled as it could be, each actor brings plenty to the table individually. Emma, the farmer’s wife, has the potential to be broad and irritating, but instead Sandra Neace makes her charming and sympathetic. As Frank, Adam Neace achieves folksy likability with a contrasting deadpan approach that yields several shining moments. As the sad-sack Haynes, Scott Dundas is somehow something more than the whipped dog that the text provides. In a way, the audience’s hopes are hinged on Haynes’ ability to evade his tormentor, and Dundas understands how to put this leverage to use. Offsetting all these nice people is Jon Lutz as the nefarious Welch. At times, Lutz’s peculiar brand of menace might not have quite the right slickness for a government spook, but he is undeniably arresting, and his ability to unsettle is one of the production’s greatest assets.
The God of Hell concerns many facets of American life. It’s about the tension between what you think is American and what somebody else tells you is American. It’s literally about Middle-Americans, but it addresses the Middle-American in us all, and how we tend to go about our business with blinders on. It’s about fearing that your way of life is threatened, but it also asks you to consider what it is you’re trying to protect. So while you may not want to revisit the beginning of this decade, you know what they say about people who cannot remember the past. At least Brüka offers it up with a laugh … and a shudder.