The Constructivists' "God of Hell" is worth the winding trip into Grand Avenue
When you go see The Constructivists' fall production, "The God of Hell," you'll have to wind your way down to the basement of the formerly grand Grand Avenue Mall to their space on the lower level. Following the signage along hidden hallways, you'll arrive in a pleasant, intimate space complete with a bar and a stage that's so close, you feel like you're sitting in someone's living room.
The proximity of the action in this absurd 2004 Sam Shepard play, directed skillfully by Constructivists' founder and artistic director Jamielyn Gray, makes it that much more frightening.
To get the full effect, be sure to be in your seat, beverage of choice in your hand, with plenty of time to listen to the pre-show music. (Evocative sound design by Colin Gawronski.) After a medley of soft country guitars and fiddles, listen for "Big Time in the Jungle" by Old Crow Medicine Show. An anti-Vietnam War and anti-government tune reminiscent of protest music of the late '60s, it tells the story of a young man who was convinced to enlist in the military by a slick "army man" and ends up cursing his own idea of patriotic duty, wondering how he ended up dodging bombs out on patrol in Southeast Asia and why.
Not only does the song set the tone for the entire drama, it feels like a missing piece of backstory for two of the main characters: middle aged, long-lost friends Frank (Robert Kennedy) and Haynes (Matthew Scales), who never explain exactly how they met. In fact, the audience is as clueless as Frank's wife Emma (Cheryl Roloff), who was in bed when Haynes arrived the night before. Now all she knows is that the sleeping man in her basement said, in a panicky voice over the phone, that he needed a place to get away for a little while since things had gotten too complicated for him at work – possibly in a government lab of some kind in Colorado.
And what better place to crash than the isolated dairy farm in Nowhere, Wisconsin, where Emma was born and raised, and where Frank tends his beloved herd of heifers? Nothing suspicious here.
But something truly doesn't add up when Haynes starts talking about plutonium, a dangerous element named after the god of hell, and it becomes clear that he can't touch another person without an arc of blue current coming from his contaminated hands. (The production employs very cool special effects to make this happen.)
And then there's the mysterious visitor, Welch (Matthew Huebsch), and his briefcase full of American flags. He not only appears at Emma's door bearing a gift of red, white and blue decorated cookies, he seems to know a lot about her already and has some strange questions about how many rooms the house contains. Dressed in the uniform of Washington politicians – a dark suit, white shirt, red tie and American flag pin on his lapel – Welch questions the loyalty of anyone who doesn't have a flag flying in the front yard.
He then proceeds to redecorate Emma's homey but hopelessly outdated house with patriotic garlands, ever more intent on retrieving Haynes from the basement and taking him back to work on a top secret project. As the situation escalates, the dread deepens but the story behind this home invasion by a government operative never becomes much clearer.
The play, written by legendary American playwright Sam Shepard, was a response to the "enhanced law enforcement" provisions of the Patriot Act, an increase in domestic surveillance and the post-9/11 torture that was carried out by the American military at Abu Ghraib. Far from the polished, complex work he is known for, it is a sometimes tedious, always absurd look at the consequences of the policies of the Bush administration, first staged just days before the 2004 presidential election. A simple story designed to shock audiences into political action, it's surprisingly sobering and relevant fifteen years later.
As the nightgown and robe-clad Emma, Roloff is a convincing innocent bystander with the "jeepers" and "criminy" vocabulary of a Wisco native who regrets her "open door policy" and has trouble deciphering the situation as it unfolds.
As her husband, Kennedy starts the play keeping his head down, stubbornly continuing to dairy farm when most of his neighbors have given up and enjoying the simple pleasures of farm life. This is evidenced by his romantic speeches about his heifers and the care he takes waterproofing his work boots for winter. It all makes his character's eventual reversal even more shocking.
As the terrified and damaged Haynes, Scales's screams are haunting. But the most terrifying performance comes from Huebsch – an agent from the deep state, complete with blue latex gloves and torture devices, who manages to make his methods sound both reasonable and necessary.
There is a saying that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." Based on Shepard's play, one could apply that to Haynes, who can never get away from his "government job," no matter how many times he tries to escape. Or to Emma and her watering can, which will eventually kill the very things she's trying to keep alive. Or to Frank, a man who accepts a new suit and a new occupation from a government man, only to find out he's been hoodwinked. Or to the audience, who may still believe official policy statements from a government that has a history of lying to hide its myriad crimes.
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