REVIEW When it premiered in New York two years ago, Sam Shepard’s latest play was timed to influence the outcome of the presidential election — an enticingly bold agenda. Of course, if you want to influence elections, as everybody understands by now, you need to be more than bold. You need to be Diebold. And anyway, what politician worries about what’s on an Off-Broadway stage? As political theater goes, Hugo Chávez calling George W. Bush the devil and sniffing out his sulfuric farts before the United Nations has much more oomph to it, in addition to getting at least as big a laugh. Chávez also backed up his warm-up zingers with a real political program. And he reads Noam Chomsky!
Two years and another flagrantly stolen election later, The God of Hell remains less interesting for any recyclable reference to the electoral contest between Democrats and Republicans (two packs squaring off again for dominance in the same corporate-owned kennel) than for the reflection in its bleak farce of something larger: an attempt to redraw the psychic and social landscape. Shepard’s ostensibly simple political broadside — whose call to alarm rings more with absurdist resignation than Brechtian defiance — has nonetheless a wily power curled up inside.
The play — sharply directed by Amy Glazer and leading off the 40th anniversary season of the Magic Theatre, Shepard’s old stomping ground — opens on the home of a dying breed: a Wisconsin dairy farmer and his wife. Emma (played with just the right suggestion of guileless good humor and native smarts by Anne Darragh) loves her indoor plants, which she compulsively waters to within an inch of their lives. Frank (John Flanagan), meanwhile, “loves his heifers,” as his affectionate wife readily explains to Frank’s old friend and their current houseguest, the jumpy and radioactive Graig Haynes (Jackson Davis), hiding from some unspecified disaster out west at a mysterious place called, in a name redolent of real-life nuclear disasters, Rocky Buttes. On the one hand, the couple looks primed to live happily heifer after. On the other, they appear stuck in a semiparadisial oasis amid unforgiving winter and a sea of agribusiness, isolated, alone, stoic, lonely, a little loony, and lost without knowing it — yet.
Emma is in the act of coaxing Haynes from the basement with some frying bacon when a stranger at the door interrupts her. As the pork sizzles, the man (Michael Santo), a business suit we later learn goes by the name Welch, appears to be selling a host of patriotic paraphernalia out of his attaché case. But his pushy demeanor quickly goes beyond the usual sales routine, his interest in Emma’s loyalty and her basement growing downright creepy, exuding an unctuousness and a sly arrogance that perfectly suggest the totalitarian turn in what Frank calls a “country of salesmen.” (Santo, whose face stretched into a thin grin bears an eerie resemblance to our real-life torturer-in-chief, is altogether perfect in the part.)
Shepard’s farmers, while purposefully cartoony, aren’t country bumpkins. Nor are they merely atavistic 1950s farmers, existing wholly in the past and detached from the present (as Welch, with telling condescension, likes to imagine them). Locally speaking, they are savvy and sure. (It’s no joke holding your own as an independent dairy farmer amid government-subsidized corporate behemoths.) Emma in particular is rooted to the very house itself, born on a patch of floor Hayes finds himself standing on at one point.
It’s the world beyond the farm and Wisconsin that the main couple find hard to grasp. In the play’s central irony, Frank and Emma tentatively mark the outer world by reference to a standard pop-cultural conspiracy narrative. But significantly, it’s just that laughable (at first) recourse to the formula of a TV thriller or sci-fi movie that points in the direction of the truth, helping Emma and Frank chart the terrain opened up by the arrival of Haynes and Welch. Long before his old friend resurfaces, Frank has already imagined for him, however vaguely, just the kind of intrigue and danger he turns out to have been undergoing. After passing the seeds of this narrative to his wife (who, as it were, dutifully overwaters them), Frank turns around and mocks her paranoia of government vehicles: “Dark cars. Suspicious. Tinted windows. Unmarked Chevies. Black antennas bowed over.” But we already know she’s right. The terrain of conspiracy, like the empire it limns, stretches in all directions, making borders meaningless except as a demagogic strategy in Welch’s fascist, state-centered patriotism.
The play invokes borders mainly to undermine, comically deflate, or cynically manipulate them. The overall and overwhelming implication is their irrelevance to an imperial might that recognizes no boundaries in the exercise of its will (things don’t need to escalate far before Welch threatens to send a bunker buster through Emma’s kitchen window). The vastness of the system confronting Emma and Frank comes across most dramatically in the unstoppable reach of plutonium — named after Pluto, the god of hell — which here serves as both a literal threat of the system and the ideal metaphor for its poisonous, apocalyptic reach. It’s this geography (real, metaphorical, potential) that the play wants us to pay attention to, since survival depends on some grasp of the lay of the land. SFBG
THE GOD OF HELL
Through Oct. 22
Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.
Fort Mason Center, bldg. D, Buchanan at Marina, SF