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God of Hell

August 27th, 2008 No comments

I went to see The God of Hell at Bang and Clatter on Saturday. The place was packed and thanks to the easy-going nature of Sean Derry I was allowed to stand in the tech booth (it was literally standing room) with Kristen, a woman who actually worked on the Ingenuity Festival this year and did one of my pieces.

Pluto is the God of Hell and is they Eponymous name for the title. It comes up during a discussion between the mysterious scientist character, Haynes (John Busser) and Emma (Jen Klika) about Plutonium, which presumably is the McGuffin for this play’s action.

I’m still trying to get my head around all of it, but what I will say struck me about this play is the return to themes in many of Shepard’s earlier plays as well as the strong absurdist techniques which were not present, or at least, not present in as strong a way, in his family plays and his more “realistic” plays.

Like those plays, however, the action begins on a farm in the “heartland.” Whenever this is the setting, Shepard has something serious to say about the state of America. The “heartland” was the setting of his Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child (coming soon to convergence-continuum!) and begins with a homecoming of sorts, as does Buried Child (BC)—as well much of the action of God of Hell (GH) occurs in the kitchen/family room. Similar, also, to Curse of the Starving Class (SC), we see a “kitchen” drama that takes place on a farm. In contrast, startlingly so, both BC and SC begin in dilapidated environs. The setting of GH is very nearly idyllic, as noted by several characters in the play, and includes a very homey kitchen with amenities that are of an earlier America—circa 1950’s perhaps. This setting of course is not accidental. True West (TW), the last of the “family trilogy” also begins in a pleasant middle-class kitchen/breakfast nook in California, but the setting is less intentionally idyllic that of a type. The setting here shows us a “heartland” that is reminiscent of the past: a time in America that was good and wholesome and strong. The whole is infused with a sense of strong values and morals, American goodness: farming, hearth, family, Currier and Ives, etc. It is clear what target Shepard has in his sights.

The homecoming in GH is that of the scientist, Haynes, who is reuniting with an old friend, the farmer, Frank (Joe Milan, often at CPT). In place of the lack of recognition in BC, or overt hostility and competition in TW, we see mystery and suspicion. Frank hasn’t seen his friend in years and doesn’t really know what he does and Frank’s wife, Emma is suspicious. All we are told is that Frank suspects Haynes was tortured or that something happened that made him overly sensitive and nervous. Frank leaves to go and feed his “heifers” and we are left with the wife, who is making bacon and obsessively watering the house plants. The wife is nervous and a bit jumpy herself and a bit suspicious of the friend in the basement; but her concerns in this regard is supplanted quickly by the arrival of a salesman. The salesman, Welch (Daniel McElhaney) begins by offering a sugar cookie in the shape of a flag with icing to make the flag an American Flag. His attempt to sell the cookie fails, but he succeeds at getting in the house. While Frank’s wife doesn’t know what quite to make of Welch, she learns quickly that he is not the “usual” salesman and, in fact, is a bit frightening. The revelations come slowly via odd questions (not much of a patriotic display in the house, the empty flag pole out front), then intrusive questions (how many rooms in the house, anyone else in the house), to the frightening ‘over-personal’ nature of his behavior (including the fact that he knows her first name and continues to call her by it). Thoroughly flummoxed, Emma orders Welch to leave, which he does. Emma then rings a bell for her husband (this is how they communicate from the house to the barn), who returns after several nerve-wracking minutes. Emma relates her story, but her husband doesn’t think much of it. Frank then opens the basement door and yells for Haynes to get up and the two farmers continue discussing Welch. Finally, Haynes makes his entrance: disheveled and in a bath robe. He is very nervous. He formally introduces himself to Emma (he arrived late at night) and shocks her when they shake hands. This zap of electricity continues through much of the rest of the play as an indicator that something is off with Haynes. Frank heads back to the barn leaving Haynes and Emma alone. Emma talks to Haynes hesitantly but honestly, eliciting some reactions from Haynes, including his denial that he is a scientist or was tortured and that her husband told her things he shouldn’t have—that Haynes didn’t want anyone to know. This of course adds to our, and Emma’s, suspicion of Haynes, and reveals, at least, that he has something to hide.

Scene One blacks out and opens in the same place on Scene Two, all we are left to ponder is that, presumably, it is a new day and in the same place. This time Emma and Haynes are talking much more openly (Frank is down at the barn with the heifers), though Haynes continues to exhibit his nervous behavior. The conversation reveals that Emma was born, literally, in the house and that many generations have lived there. It reveals some more traditional themes in the Shepard oeuvre, including a sense of the land and place, a gross sense of distrust for Agribusiness and corporate farms, the sense that the farm has been displaced by the government and corporations to the detriment of our national soul. The conversation touches upon Welch, which visibly frightens Haynes, who makes Emma complicit by ensuring that she tells no one he is there in the basement. The timing couldn’t be better, as who should return? Haynes panics and rushes to the basement. Welch essentially forces his way in, confronting Emma. He bullies her and relentlessly questions her until by accident she reveals that someone is in the basement. She flees the kitchen to get her husband and in her absence Welch bullies and berates Haynes out of the basement and confronts him. As they “talk”, Welch takes out red, white, and blue bunting and begins stapling it to the cabinets and stapling other forms of bunting to the doors, sticking American flags in the plants, and placing decorative magnets on the refrigerator. He reminds Haynes of his duty, of the torture that was used before, and the fact that the torment will have to start all over for programming purposes. As the scene ends Welch is directing Haynes into the basement and talking of a group meeting on “Tuesday” where decisions will be made about what to do.

The final scene opens with Emma in the kitchen and Frank entering in the same suit that Welch has been wearing throughout. Again, thematically this is a technique that Shepard uses often: in Curse, Wesley dresses up as Weston at the end, showing the symbolically the pattern of genetic inheritance continues; in Rock Garden, Shepard again uses this technique to symbolically identify the genetic inheritance from father to son. Here it is not used in a familial context, but nonetheless demonstrates that Frank has become like Welch. As well, we learn that Frank has sold all the heifers and now has a suitcase filled with money. Emma is shocked and protests that Frank loved the heifers and what was he going to do now? Frank has no answer. Again, Shepard is revealing his lifelong outrage at the commercialization of the American land and way of life. Curiously, though Frank is now dressed like Welch, he is more of a mixed breed; for we note that he is a bit nervous, too: showing signs similar to those of Haynes. This is confirmed as Frank shocks Emma, then he begins grabbing his crotch demonstrating physical discomfort: a discomfort that is soon clarified as we hear Haynes screaming in the basement. Soon Welch emerges from the basement bearing a long cable and a control button. When he pushes the button, Haynes screams in the basement. When Haynes emerges we see the cable is attached to his penis and his head is covered in a black hood. The obvious representation here of the incidents at Abu Ghraib cannot be ignored. Emma attempts to stop the proceedings as Haynes is forced through torture to say the things that Welch wishes to hear. She wins a battle, for a moment, getting Frank to ask for the heifers back (who were supposed to be going off to a glorious use). Welch laughs and Haynes reveals that the heifers were not sold for a glorious purpose, but for a grisly, dirty, pointless fate (much like the soldiers have been treated in the war in Iraq). Frank demands the heifers be returned, dumping the money; but he is no match for Welch, who soon has Frank back in line (with a thinly veiled threat), much to Emma’s sorrow. Soon, Frank is repeating those same things and, through ‘his own’ initiative is even indicting his own ‘friend’ for having lapsed from his ‘programming.’ Through torture Welch forces Haynes to march and soon Frank voluntarily joins in. Welch marches them both out the door while Emma pleads with Frank not to go. The play ends with Welch mocking Emma and asking her rhetorically if she really believed that she could live the life she has been living in America with no sacrifice—without giving up something? He leaves as Emma runs out the door and rings the bell, to no avail.

Shepard isn’t known for his happy endings, of course. And this certainly is no exception. The outlook is bleak for the American people who (maybe) stood up for themselves once upon a time. And once-upon-a-time is important to this play: one of its major dialogs being between what is and what ought to be; what never was, but what we dreamed would be.

In my MNO class last night Professor David Hammack noted that non-profit groups did not exist in the colonies because they were essentially illegal. Illegal in the sense that only the church provided the sorts of services that non-profits provide today; and in the colonies, you had to be a church or a preacher to practice and you had to be approved of the Church of England and specifically by the Bishop of London: that there were stiff penalties for violating this. He noted, for instance, that many Quakers in early America where hanged by the neck until dead for speaking their minds; and it was illegal to be a Catholic in the colonies. The American Revolution was truly more than a political revolution, but sadly, even after the Revolution these practices continued, with the table turning. Many members of the Church of England were driven from the north of America to Canada, where they live to this day in Catholic Quebec. Professor Hammack commented that many of these details are left out of the history books we get in our elementary schools because the truth is too painful. He then remarked, “and of course, we don’t teach history in high school anymore.” This is, of course, somewhat facetious, but none-the-less proves an important point: many of us grow up with myth and fantasy as our understanding of our American heritage, not the hard-boiled practical reality of how people lived. Professor Hammack, in commenting on Queen Elizabeth I, noted that she had the head of her half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots; else Mary Queen of Scots would have done the same to her. He remarked, “in those days, they played for keeps.” Knowing the practical realities of a situation is important. Living in a fantasy world is not good. Too many Americans live in such a world—either by choice or because the realities have been intentionally withheld. Shepard’s play, I think draws this parallel in stark terms, but makes it clear that just because practical realities exist and are hard is no reason that our ideals should be sacrificed–which is the outcome of much of the abuse of power practices of the Bush administration demonstrate. That is, in a time of war democracy is superfluous or icing (which is, of course, absurd). There is no doubt that we need to “play for keeps” but we must be careful that we do not destroy the very things that make us great. It is a fine line, to be sure, but behaving recklessly only exacerbates the potential that the fragile balance will break the wrong way; and as Shepard’s play also demonstrates, as has American history, people who are afraid are often all too willing to abrogate the important rights that make this country what it is. It takes courage to stand up for what is important and a self-confidence that is grounded firmly in your soul.

Directed by Chris Johnston, The God of Hell was an excellently done theater piece which moved at a fast clip, rippled with absurd events, and yet, of course, per the best of Shepard, revealed a nightmarish reality.

A Not-So-Impossible Dream

June 27th, 2008 1 comment

I opened the July/August American Theatre to an article about a theater in Maryland that partnered with three nearby colleges to create a voucher program.

The article, A Not-So-Impossible Dream, by Eliza Bent, discusses the process used by the Marlyand Ensemble Theatre: the theater sends vouchers to the colleges; the colleges distribute them to faculty, students, or staff; the student (or whomever) shows up at the theater and gives the voucher and gets in free; the theater then bills the colleges for the cost of a reduced ticket–for the colleges the money actually comes out of the student life budget.

This is one way that this theater has been encouraging younger people to come to shows and also, that the colleges have been encouraging students to see theater–especially in programs where it is important and can be tied to curriculum (an excellent example being that con-con is putting up the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child in the fall) which is always good for a literature department!

As the article rightly points out, this would be one way to combat the ‘gerification’ of modern American theaters. For convergence, as I’m learning, this is one of the main challenges for several reasons: first, it is difficult (read, impossible) to sustain operations from ticket sales alone–theaters need investment from their community and this is difficult for con-con as its appeal is not to this deep-pocketed, older market which seems to relish a more conservative type of theater, in both content and structure; second, the type of theater that con-con produces is in-your-face, usually multimedia enhanced–a type that should appeal to a younger crowd; and third, con-con runs plays that are generally out of the main stream–contemporary, experimental, ‘dangerous’, and usually regional premieres (or in my case, a world-premiere).

I have no illusions about how difficult it would be to set up something similar here, but am thinking about trying to push it with as many people as I know. Obviously, I am interested in doing this on behalf of convergence, but the fact is, this is something that would be great in Cleveland more broadly. There is a density of both theaters and colleges here and I’m sure Karamu, CPT, Dobama, Bang and Clatter, the Play House, and even more would be interested. To use business parlance, it’s a win-win for everyone!

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