Sam Shepard’s God of Hell is a cozy, cuddly punch in the face from a stranger. It’s not terribly sophisticated or subtle, but it’s not without its charm either. The stranger in question isn’t Sam Shepard. The acclaimed playwright has written some of the most striking drama of the past 50 years or so. God of Hell doesn’t live up to his best work, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not provocative on some level. The darkly comic drama provokes thought through percussion. The stranger metaphorically punching audiences in the face here isn’t Shepard, though. The stranger is someone that Shepard ushers onstage to take over the lives of a wife, a husband and an acquaintance of his on a small dairy farm in rural Wisconsin. Directed by Jaimelyn Gray, the drama is a twisted, little fugue of political allegory featuring a really fun cast. The Constructivists stage an intimate production of the drama beneath downtown Milwaukee in the Underground Collaborative.
The stranger in question is played by Matthew Huebsch. The stranger’s name is Welch, but by the time we find that out, it’s already too late. Like any stranger, he’s familiar. He’s a clean-cut guy. He wears a suit with a little US flag pin on it. He’s carrying an attache case. Huebsch is the soulless customer service face of the U.S.--kind of charming cross between a soft-spoken Clark Gregg and the sinister patriotism of Mr. Freedom who casually walks into a mundane rural domestic setting and assumes total ownership of it. There’s real menace in Huebsch that’s cleverly hidden behind a shiny, clean smile.
Cheryl Roloff plays Emma--a rural midwesterner with a deep Wisconsin accent who waters plants not far from the floor on which she was born. She’s never lived anywhere else. She’s never had any reason to do so. Roloff lends Emma the powerful inner strength of someone who has never really had to use it. She tries her best to assert herself in the presence of the stranger, but she’s so completely out of her element trying to exude authority that he doesn’t even seem to notice.
Robert W.C. Kennedy summons a quiet strength to the role of Emma’s husband Frank. He’s a fiercely independent man who might have fallen in love with the quiet simplicity of a small dairy farm a bit more than he’d fallen in love with Emma. Kennedy’s silent formidability serves as a powerful dramatic anchor that conjures dynamic dramatic tension between the residents of the home and its interlopers.
Matthew Scales is an appealingly uneasy energy onstage in the role of Haynes--an old friend/acquaintance of Frank’s who is staying at his home as a guest for a few days. Haynes suffers from a rather dangerous condition which reveals itself whenever he comes into contact with another person. Sitting there with heavy sweat on his brow even in calm moments, Scales feels like a bomb ready to go off at any moment, which adds a clever fourth dimension to the dramatic quartet that Shepard assembles onstage.
In the course of the play’s 90-ish intermission-less minutes onstage, things gradually get more and more surreal. Set and costume designer Sarah Harris’ overwhelmingly mundane rural Wisconsin set firmly establishes the domestic realism of the play from the moment it begins. The smell of burning bacon early-on in the play adds another layer of realism.
The main problem with the script is that increasingly strange and disturbing revelations aren’t accompanied by an increasing sophistication in the plot. From beginning to end, The God of Hell is one long, continuous, congenially brutal punch in the face. So it feels a little weird. As provocative as it is, it doesn’t exactly lend itself to very deep thoughts on the nature of the U.S. or the gradually encroaching nature of fascism that has been continuing to bleed-in around the edges of the U.S. government.
The God of Hell doesn’t need to be deep political allegory, but it’s kind of missing an opportunity in not doing so. Without a great deal of sophistication, the drama plays out like a domestic horror story told with an impressively blunt political hammer. The horror is very, very strong in this one. As horror, impressively compelling. It may lack a whole lot of depth, but The God of Hell dazzling works as a dark subterranean horror show in the lead-up to Halloween in the midst of presidential impeachment investigations on the precipice of a very important presidential election. Director Jaimelyn Gray does an excellent job in bringing a drama to the Underground Collaborative which may be the PERFECT horror for its time and place.
The Constructivists’ production of God of Hell runs through Oct. 12 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Constructivists online.