Fort Worth — It’s a marker of how far our politics have progressed (regressed?) that watching Sam Shepard’s 2004 The God of Hell, with its outraged, Abu-Ghraib-inspired depictions of hooded political prisoners being subjected to genital torture leaves one thinking: how quaint. Not as weighted with mythos as much of Shepard’s work, the play is an exercise in paranoia and absurdism, one (small) step above being mere propaganda, but one can imagine how it might’ve hit the ear mere years after the attacks on 9/11. DragStrip Courage and director Natalie Gaupp have put together a credible production of this minor piece, anchored by some powerful performances.
Deep in rural Wisconsin, dairy farmers Frank (Mark Makin) and Emma (Elizabeth Webb) are just trying to keep their cows fed and get through another brutal winter when an old friend of Frank’s, Haynes (Gage Anderson), blunders in seeking sanctuary. Haynes is on the run from the government, which has apparently not only tortured him, but has also caused him to be literally electrified in some way, possibly in connection with the production of plutonium (the etymology of the word being the source for the play’s title). When touched by anyone, blue lightning erupts from his body. Before they even have a chance to absorb this situation, the couple’s home is invaded by the smiling Welch (DragStrip mainstay Seth Johnston), a sort of government agent/travelling salesman of American jingoism, whose character feels like a riff on the sinister strangers of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. He’s in hot pursuit of Haynes, who he accuses of “contaminating” the entirety of the Midwest, and in a whirlwind of stars and stripes manages to not only subjugate Haynes but to annex Emma’s beloved houseplants and to indoctrinate Frank—and even Frank’s beloved heifers--to the cause of American supremacy.
Appropriately, Johnston dominates the stage as the menacing Welch, and the play as it at its most successful in the scenes where his character is fencing with Webb’s Emma, whose Midwestern befuddlement as Welch quickly deconstructs her reality is the comic highlight of the piece. The character, in some sales-training attempt to connect with Emma, says her name repeatedly, and Johnston manages to infuse the word with a sense of patronization so strong it makes your teeth hurt. Webb, meanwhile, is the grounding force in a world spinning into chaos, and although the play itself doesn’t offer many opportunities for real depth of character, she makes the most of each one. Makin and Anderson’s characters are both somewhat underwritten, but Makin in particular mines the humor in Frank’s country-bumpkin ways.
Arts Fifth Avenue can be a challenging venue in terms of set design and lighting, but Johnston, who in addition to performing in the piece is also responsible for set, lighting, and sound design, cleverly harmonizes the set with the existing environment, creating a sense of slightly shaggy cohesion to the set—the art pieces on the wall and tin ceilings translate surprisingly easily to a slightly shabby Wisconsin farmhouse. There were some issues in coordinating the lighting and sound effects of Haynes’ “lightning” effect, but overall they were effectively startling, and the final set piece where Welch tortures a hooded Haynes was genuinely disturbing.
DragStrip Courage is a scrapper of a company, fearlessly choosing interesting, challenging pieces. While the political moment has shifted dramatically, this piece is an intriguing window back into that post 9/11 mindset, and the production manages to give it the weight it deserves without teetering one way into hardcore political agitprop or the other into unrepentant farce—a balancing act worth seeing.