The God Of Hell

Old Fitzroy Theatre, August 28 

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Vanessa Downing and Ben McIvor. Photo: Gareth Davies.

Sometimes a single performance blazes from a production to illuminate all around it. Vanessa Downing’s Emma in Sam Shepard’s The God Of Hell is such a creation. Marooned in the dairy-farming boondocks of Wisconsin, Emma has a nodding acquaintance with a cousin of contentment, as long as not too much is expected of life or marriage. Downing’s wide-eyed, slow-voiced portrayal fills us with wonder as she puzzles over just how and why her all-too-familiar world is imploding.

The play was penned just as George W Bush and his cronies whipped up their frenzy of hollow patriotism, the short-hand of which was “if you’re not with us, you’re agin us”. Shepard lambasts this mentality with an odd mix of satire, black comedy and disquieting drama. The tone stays in flux throughout, contributing to an edginess that finds its primary outlet in Haynes (Jake Lyall), who has done a runner from whatever abomination the government had him doing. When he lobs with Emma and her husband Frank (Tony Poli) he is not in a good way. If his nervousness did not give this away the fact  he periodically emits blue flashes of electricity might suggest it. As Emma assures him, “That’s not normal, Mr Haynes.”

Frank being obsessed with his heifers, Emma must deal with the rude intrusions of Welch (Ben McIvor), a government agent hunting for Haynes and spreading compulsory patriotism. His unrelenting cordiality makes his all-American zealotry more surreal, but not necessarily more sinister.

Director/designer Rodney Fisher has a literal incarnation of the Emma/Frank homestead filling the stage, much of which is demanded by Shepard’s (often amusing) stage business. He also has Downing and Poli playing their lines at the pace with which their mid-western lives unfold, which fits the characters but does not always benefit the humour. Ultimately this is a very fine production, although the play itself is stronger on what its characters would call “attitood” than on clarity of intent.

Until September 13.