Sunday, August 3, 2008

The God of Hell, Bang and Clatter/Cleveland

If you’ve ever wanted to scream, and not stop screaming, at this beautiful country’s drift (some might call it a march) towards fascism, then you need to see The God of Hell now at Bang and Clatter’s Cleveland venue. This is a heartfelt screed, wrapped in a polemic and stuffed into a snarl. And it should be music to the ears of those who feel abused by the Bush administration and their agenda of preemptive war, torture, lying, and other assorted affronts to the constitution.

Written by Sam Shepard, this play isn’t exactly polished. But it doesn’t want to be. And the B&C folks give it an essentially flawless performance that ripples with the muscularity of outrage and helplessness that so many have felt in the past seven agonizing years.

The entire 80-minute one-act takes place at a small family farm in Wisconsin, where Frank tends to his new heifers and Emma fusses over a profusion of indoor plants in the front room. They seem as normal as two cheese-heads ever could, until we learn that Frank’s “old friend” Haynes is staying in the basement, and won’t even come out when the morning bacon is served.

The reason for that is eventually revealed after the doorbell rings and a pushy traveling salesman named Welch arrives, peddling American flag cookies and other patriotic claptrap. But his sales pitch soon evolves into a series of questions, and he seems particularly interested in the basement and who might be down there.

From that point on, the startling transformation of all four characters is enacted in scenes that snap and sizzle with the kind of energy you just don’t see very often. Once Welch reveals his true intent as a government operative, and forces the others to “get in step” by leading his guinea pig Haynes around by an electric cable attached to his cock, a cold chill should run down your spine. And if it doesn’t, you’d better check for a pulse and read this.

The splendid cast includes Joseph Milan as unsuspecting Frank, spooling off farmer references so easily you’d think he just meandered onto the set from a nearby barn. And Jen Klika is superb as Emma, her dead eyes and deadpan delivery registering nothing—and yet everything—as she putters about.

John Busser is a righteous and appropriate mess as Haynes, who shakes every time a place called Rocky Butte is mentioned and who is beset with a cataclysmic case of static electricity every time he touches someone. But the most fascinating performance is handed in by Daniel McElhaney, who smears the smarm when Welch is in salesman mode, chuckling eerily at the tag end of his sentences, and then morphing into a Donald Rumsfeld/Dick Cheney wet dream as a righteous torturer without remorse.

Director Christopher Johnston gets the lion’s share of credit for ratcheting up the tension in this piece and blending Shepard’s black humor with his bleakly dystopian view of the current government.

The point of all this is given an icy sheen when Welch confronts Emma and asks, “You didn’t think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?” And that is the essential value of the new fascism: Democracy as a weapon, meant to be wielded by the super-wealthy and the powerful to keep everyone else under their collective heel.

The God of Hell
August 1 – August 23
The Bang and the Clatter Theatre Company
224 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland

No comments: