Subtle like an anvil
The God of Hell
Subtlety is not a trait playwright Sam Shepard displays in The God of Hell, a hard-biting farce about Big Brother government. He clearly has a message about this current administration, and he drops it like an anvil on your head.
Shepard is a bit constrained in the first 20 minutes of this memorable 70-minute shock satire, now playing at the B Street Theatre. He draws the audience into the slow, safe rhythms of a remote Wisconsin dairy. It’s an all-American homestead, where feeding heifers and watering houseplants dominate the conversations of an unassuming farm couple.
Emma (Rebecca Dines) and Frank (David Stickler) are minding their own business up on their farm, or, as Shepard describes them, they’re “lost in the long ago.” Their flat, broad Fargo-esque accents fit their plain-speak in a household where excitement and visitors are rare. But that soon changes when both invade this peaceful farm.
First, Frank’s mysterious old chum Haynes (David Pierini) comes to lie low after a strange occurrence at his government job. He’s a bit jumpy and displays a shocking personality—literally. Every time he touches another human being, Haynes electrocutes the person, accompanied by great lightning-jolt special effects.
Then comes a smooth-talking stranger. Sinister salesman Welch (Kurt Johnson) is literally selling patriotism. Welch’s sales spiel dazzles as he pushes red-white-and-blue flags, banners and confetti while slyly asking personal questions and poking through cupboards.
What starts off as a sweet comedy swiftly swirls into a wickedly witty farce. Though it’s a bit heavy-handed, there’s a perverse joy in watching the skewering of the Dubya administration and in unveiling the hypocrisy and danger of a “Big Brother knows best, so shut up and salute” mentality. Fair warning: This is adult fare, from the colorful language to the painful torturing of private parts.
Director Buck Busfield has gathered a first-rate cast. The B Street regulars regale us with their specialties; no one does “sad sack” better than Pierini, and Johnson pulls out his best insincere, sinister agent of evil. Two relative newcomers add real pathos to the party: Stickler as the good-to-the-core Midwesterner and Dines, who is the heart and soul of the story. The two play off each other wonderfully, and woefully tell each other that things got out of control because “we weren’t paying attention.” In the end, the audience does pay attention—to both the message and the messengers.