Domestic Terror

photo by Christal Wagner

by Jeff Grygny

“You didn’t think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?”

The title of The Constructivists’ latest production conjures the image of a crowned, horned figure,  marshaling demonic hordes in a computer-game battle for the soul of the world. The play itself is closer to our everyday lives—and consequently much scarier. The sense of metaphysical struggle in The God of Hell is keenly present, though expressed in a different set of metaphors. And since it’s Sam Shepard writing, the battle takes place in a farmhouse in rural Wisconsin.

Once upon a time, Frank and Emma live in isolation; he’s devoted to his heifers; she, to her sprawling collection of houseplants. They live comfortably, if not blissfully. But when Frank invites an old buddy, a fellow named Hayes, to stay in their basement, it exposes their peaceful lives to sinister powers they could never have imagined: in a day, their sleepy dream turns into a nightmare. Shepard’s poetic style is as short on plot details as it is heavy on allusion. Without ever telling us the exact nature of the work Hayes is fleeing from, or the agency he worked for, the story sends out tendrils of association, like a surrealist painting outgrowing its frame, to include agribusiness, neoliberalism, globalization, the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, right-wing fanaticism, the Rocky Flats Plutonium facility, the military-industrial complex, political torture, conspiracy theories, corruption, contagion, and the Biblical fall of Adam and Eve. The “god” of the title is the Roman ruler of the underworld, whose name is shared with the most poisonous radioactive element used in nuclear bombs—but it can be no coincidence that he was also the god of wealth, hence “plutocracy.” Shepard wrote this little fable in response to the Iraq war, the recent revelations from Abu Graib, and, as he put it, “republican fascism,”  but the dynamics it describes certainly live on today, though in different forms.

It would be hard to imagine a fuller realization of the play than this one, masterfully executed by director Jaimelyn Gray and her team of talented artists. As Emma and Frank, Cheryl Roloff and Robert W.C. Kennedy don’t strain to become icons of innocence (though the dome-pated Kennedy does rather resemble the stern farmer from American Gothic).  Roloff could be nearly anybody’s gentle-hearted aunt. As Hayes, Matthew Scales is vaguely scholarly and foreign, with a hint of danger about him; not just simple danger: X-files level danger. What have they been doing in that secret facility in Colorado? But the show really belongs to Matthew Huebsch as the government factotum Welch. From creepily cheery to full-out Nazi, his can-do patriotism and twisted Orwellian logic soon bend everyone out of true. With his wide jawline and a fanatical glitter in his eyes, Huebsch is like Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad character in the flesh.

From it’s mildly farcical beginning, the action soon strikes a sinister note, and the tension never lets up, building to a terrifying, over-the-top Walpurgisnacht climax. The lovingly-crafted set is possibly the most professional-looking ever to grace the stage of the Underground Collaborative. There is even a live stove on which Emma burns bacon; the wafting aroma somehow becomes yet another apt metaphor. The play wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the attention to detail that the production crew brings.

These days it’s easy to feel that life in America was wonderful just before today’s political headaches. But The God of Hell reminds us that our current plight was a long time in the making. Who are the Trumph enthusiasts if not the people who chanted “USA!” while Bush’s invasion blasted an entire country to rubble so that Cheney’s petroleum cronies could profit richly? Who are the ones kenneling immigrant children but the ones who ran the black ops torture sites? Those people should have been held to account; instead, they were given convenient passes out of a misguided sense of preserving domestic tranquility. But Shepard shows us what can happen once ordinary men and women—neither good nor evil, but simply human—let the devil get his foot in the door. By doing this play now, the Constructivists are sounding a timely alarm. Who will answer it? And what holy relic can we find that will break the devil’s power?

The Constructivists present

The God of Hell

by Sam Shepard

playing through October 12

https://www.theconstructivists.org/productions/2019-20-season/the-god-of-hell-2019

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