[God of Hell review]
By Philip Fisher
No one has told Sam Shepard that as you age, you are gracefully supposed to lose the fire of youth from your belly. Judging by The God of Hell, his play that opened off-Broadway a year ago starring Randy Quaid and Tim Roth, the veteran has lost none of his devastating ability to attack what he sees as the American malaise.
In this play, he launches a fierce attack on the America of George W Bush and like one of his protagonists, Welch, has no desire to take any prisoners.
The beginning of Kathy Burke's 70-minute production gives no indication of the fireworks (almost literally) to come. Jonathan Fensom's simple set shows the kitchen and front room of a farmhouse in Wisconsin belonging to an ordinary, if rather dim, couple, Frank and Emma, played by Stewart McQuarrie and Lesley Sharp.
As their home shows, Emma is deeply into pot plants while her husband is a heifer lover, in the nicest possible sense. With these interests, they stave off the terrifying Wisconsin winters and lead a happy life in the American Dairyland State in which nothing ever happens.
The only possible clouds on their horizon are the barrenness of Frank's heifers - he now has replacements for the originals since calving has gone out of fashion - and the arrival of Frank's neurotic scarecrow of an old pal, Haynes, who has a nasty habit of giving off flashes of lightning, when touched.
For this part, Kathy Burke has selected her old chum from Harry Enfield days, Ewen Bremner, and he does her proud. This is hardly an easy role to play but Bremner who made his name as Spud in Trainspotting makes this terrified, tortured government agent seem surprisingly believable.
The play takes a strange turn with the arrival of sickeningly unctuous door-to-door salesman, Welch, turned by the regularly-excellent Ben Daniels into a Jehovah's Witness-like proto-patriot who might have arrived from Mars.
This man seems as nice as apple pie but he soon freaks out poor Emma with his knowledge of the family and his suspicions about the guest in the basement.
On his second visit, he moves into overdrive to the terrified detriment not only of Haynes but also Frank. By the end of this chillingly absurd comedy, these two men have been turned into something little better than the barren heifers that they are eventually forced to imitate.
The God of Hell was Pluto, the nominal progenitor of plutonium. Shepard implies that it is this element which is forcing the sinister government to buy off dairy farmers in an insidious effort to control every element of the life of its citizens.
In the play itself, The God of Hell could be either the contaminated Haynes, the awful smiling Welch or even good old George Dubya.
This is not an easy play but thanks to the efforts of Kathy Burke and her cast, Shepard's onslaught on values in America today grabs the attention and achieves its goals.
Yale Professor Emeritus and critic Richard Gilman, another who takes no prisoners, wrote of Shepard almost 25 years ago, "Not many critics would dispute the proposition that Sam Shepard is our most interesting and exciting American playwright". While some of the young pretenders have challenged and possibly overtaken the older battler, The God of Hell proves that he is still striving to be as interesting and exciting as he ever was.