America has always been a weird place, what with our inner struggle between libertarian urges and authoritarian dalliances, not to mention the disingenuous stories we tell ourselves about our unique virtue and benevolence. It's a story that doesn't really add up, much like Sam Shepard's surreal new drama, The God of Hell. Frank Theatre goes at this American fascist allegory head-on, giving it a distinctive stamp and prodding the material with results that are compelling, even jarring, if limited at times by directorial choices and the material itself.
The action begins in a humble house on a Wisconsin dairy farm, with wife Emma (Virginia Burke) and stoic husband Frank (Gary Keast), a guy who feels that he's located a decent approximation of the meaning of life in caring for his cows. Frank's old friend Greg (Ansa Akyea) has recently fallen on hard times, and as of the night before, will be taking his mail in the farmhouse's basement. With the arrival of a mysterious stranger named Welch (Grant Richey), offering an American-flag decorated cookie, things go from slightly odd to downright sinister.
Steven Rohde's set is homespun and cozy (nothing says "humble home" like macramé plant hangers), though any expectations of a conventional drama are thrown aside once Greg starts shooting sparks from his body. Greg, it turns out, has been involved in some vague top-secret government program, and pretty soon Emma is starting to feed her inner paranoiac and veer off into black-helicopter territory (this after saying that nothing ever happens in Wisconsin unless someone "falls through the ice, or gets beheaded on their snowmobile").
Director Wendy Knox seems to purposely steer the material away from any conventional safety zone. Much of the language in the early going is almost transparently bland, but almost from the beginning this production hits a tone of anti-naturalism, with each performer seeming to work within his own bubble of strangeness rather than meshing as a unit. Richey in particular goes right over the top from the get-go, with waves of creepy, condescending malice, and Burke veers wide-eyed between moods, and at times lends the work a welcome comic touch.
In the second half of this single-act show, things move from the domestic sphere to realms of torture and political domination (it's not that big a shift, come to think of it). Here is where Knox's approach starts to pay off, when Shepard's surrealism is cranked up several notches. Welch turns out to be not only a sick sadist, but one with a government clearance, and he's tied into a locus of power that seeks to do away with such inconveniences as human rights and representative democracy.
Shepard is indeed guilty of heavy-handedness here, but we're also living under an administration that cries foul over the notion of the blanket criminalization of torture. When Welch snarls, "We're in charge now!" one hears echoes of the autocratic affinity in some sectors of our own society (playing John Ashcroft's bizarro-universe hit "Let the Mighty Eagle Soar" during a scene change is one hint where we're headed here).
The title is a reference to plutonium, in all its unimaginably carcinogenic glory, and it's one more metaphor for the destructive aspects of unchecked power. Today we use "radioactive" to refer to one's political status, as though they were interchangeable and one reality no more deadly than the other. By the end of this work, when Welch's craziness has seemingly triumphed and all that's left to do is march in lockstep into a new dawn, one feels fairly vanquished. American to the core, Shepard gives us a gesture of hope, but one feels his heart isn't in it. The God of Hell imparts high weirdness and sounds an alarm at the expense of conventional dramatic payoff. Knox and her cast essentially go him one further, giving us a world so deeply off-kilter that only cruelty and power can prevail. What's left to debate is how much it resembles the one in which we find ourselves today.