- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 5, 2006

Big Brother is wrapped in the American flag in Sam Shepard’s biting farce, “The God of Hell,” a vituperative cautionary tale about the Bush administration currently playing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center under the aegis of the Didactic Theatre Company.

Mr. Shepard dashed off the play — which he describes as “a takeoff on Republican fascism” — the summer before the last presidential election in hopes that people would see it before deciding between George Bush and John Kerry.

“The God of Hell” was staged in November 2004 at New York’s New School University, and although it did not sway the vote, it is still relevant to those taking a scathing view of the present administration.

Whether from a red state or a blue state, there is plenty to warm up to in Didactic’s production, directed with malicious high energy by H. Lee Gable.

George Orwell’s nightmarish vision from “1984” has landed in America’s Dairyland, as two modest Wisconsin dairy farmers find themselves trapped under the jackbooted foot of big government. Frank (Colby Codding) and his wife, Emma (Adrienne Nelson), keep to themselves and their Holsteins and think of their life as pleasantly boring until a houseguest attracts the attention of a CIA-type operative.

Frank lets his old buddy Haynes (Christopher Carroll) crash in their basement while he pulls himself together. Haynes never fully discloses what happened, but his experience had something to do with plutonium spills in the desert and covert cover-ups and has resulted in his body shooting off titanic white sparks and blaring “God Bless America” every time someone touches him.

He thinks he’s safe among Wisconsin’s taxidermy and cheese, but then Welch (Matt Howe) barges in, a flag-waving, picket fence-toothed government goombah masquerading as a door-to-door salesman hawking jingoistic knickknacks. He knows Emma’s name, everything about Frank and his dairy farm, and that Haynes is hiding in the basement. Welch’s omnipotence turns more sinister when he tries to indoctrinate Frank into his regime, a combination of patriotism and paranoia.

“I don’t know what our government is anymore,” laments Emma, who soon realizes that “of the people, by the people, for the people” has been tossed aside in favor of an administration ruled by secrecy, surveillance and scare tactics. Welch finds her befuddlement amusing, firing back: “You didn’t think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?”

You suspect that there is much more outrageous comedy to be mined in “The God of Hell” than what Didactic offers in its fervent, hard-hitting staging. The cast goes for the jugular in every scene, when perhaps a tad more pulling back might have resulted in more laughs. Miss Nelson is the most restrained of the bunch, and her Wisconsin accent is subtle, laying on the bovine vowels only when needed for comedic effect.

The character of Emma is the baffled conscience of the piece, and Miss Nelson deftly shows how a good, placid person can easily get caught up in circumstances beyond her control.

Mr. Codding plays the docile Frank so expertly he might as well be chewing the cud along with his beloved heifers, while Mr. Carroll portrays his friend Haynes with a bug-eyed, tic-laden sense of crushing panic. Mr. Howe comes on rather strong in the beginning, but his booming, glad-handing presence gains frightening menace as the play goes on.

“The God of Hell” is not veiled or circumspect, attributes you usually find in Mr. Shepard’s works. It is more of a diatribe, and at times a bitterly funny one. In Mr. Shepard’s hands, the magnetic ribbons you see on SUVs all over town become an ominous symbols and an innocent-looking flag cookie is the weapon of mass destruction used by the government to turn its citizens into sheep.

**1/2

WHAT: “The God of Hell,” by Sam Shepard

WHERE: Didactic Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St., NE, Washington, D.C.

WHEN: 8 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. Through March 18.

TICKETS: $15 to $20

PHONE: 202/249-0782

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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