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[God of Hell review]

The God of Hell Seethes Rage, Fails to Convince
Bloomberg, 31 October 2005

By David Benedict

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You don't have to be a nervous Republican to see Sam Shepard's play, The God of Hell as a comedy-horror slice of fantasy Bush-bashing.

This near-farcical fable, consciously written ahead of the latest U.S. election, concerns a down-home, unpoliticized Wisconsin farming couple. Frank (Stuart McQuarrie) and Emma (Lesley Sharp) are the kind of folks whose idea of bad language runs to "Criminy!''

The last of a dying breed of dairy farmers, Frank's idea of a good day is tending to his beloved heifers. Emma, born, bred and still living in the same farmhouse -- realized in full naturalistic detail by dutiful designer Jonathan Fensom -- is his naive, hard- working wife.

Shepard uses the theme of many a drama of the past 50 years: the invasive stranger. The unexpected arrival of secretive, neurotic Haynes (Ewen Bremner) has thrown things into disarray but he, at least, is a friend of Frank from way back. Matters worsen with a knock on the door from Welch (Ben Daniels), a strangely zealous seller of patriotic knick-knacks from cookies to flags.

The thoroughly Mephistophelean Welch reveals himself as a malign government figure in pursuit of Haynes who - no surprises here - is on the run from a sinister nuclear facility. Using a nasty electric device attached to Hayne's private parts, Welch sets about torturing, taking over and controlling all their lives.

Satire and subtlety have rarely been synonymous so no one has a right to demand that this gleefully grotesque portrait of smiling governmental misuse of everything from patriotism to plutonium be quietly argued. Yet Shepard gives us little to think about except to swallow his line and at 65 minutes, it's too elaborate for a sketch and too undernourished to be a satisfying play.

The real problem is that the characters and situations are all deadeningly in service of a prescribed idea. Shepard's rage at America's unblinking drift to the right is obvious, yet it's a playwright's duty to make a play. If the writing is too simplistic, it risks curdling into propaganda, however strong-minded the intention.

That this only gradually occurs to you is a tribute to Kathy Burke's superbly acted production, which is, to its advantage, almost half an hour shorter than the New York premiere.

The four British actors mine the text for black comedy, especially Lesley Sharp. After spending the past 10 years in the cream of U.K. TV dramas, she simply sparkles on stage, filling dowdy Emma with convincing detail. She moans that nothing ever happens, then raises a huge laugh by observing, "Once in a while someone falls through the ice or gets beheaded on their snowmobile, but apart from that...''

The God of Hell hums with well-directed rage. But to make a dystopic vision work on stage, you have to sow effective seeds of long-term disquiet. No matter how experienced the dramatist --and Shepard has written a slew of better plays -- that takes more than the brandishing of an idea with the requisite emotion.


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