Sam Shepard’s Political Farce Plays on Stage in Cloverdale

With the lifting of most restrictions on in-door gatherings, the curtain continues to slowly rise on live, in-person theater in the North Bay. Many companies, having made their season announcements, plan to welcome audiences into their houses with productions opening from mid-August to early September.

The Cloverdale Performing Arts Center gets an early jump on the season with Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell. Originally planned as a streaming production, the show now runs live, onstage Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons through Aug. 1.

Capacity at the 99-seat theater will be limited to 50%, and groups will be safely spaced apart. Masks must be worn while moving around the theater—but may be removed while seated for the 90-minute show, which is what every one of the 30-plus opening-night attendees—except me—did.

Playwright Shepard, whose better-known works include True West, Buried Child and Fool for Love, wrote this play in 2004 in reaction to the events of 9/11 and the then-impending presidential election. Its focus on ultra-patriotism places connections to our current political environment within easy reach.

Wisconsin dairy farmers Frank (Christopher Johnston) and Emma (Elizabeth Henry) find their quiet, pastoral lives upended with the arrival of a mysterious man in black named Welch (Jonathan Graham), whose briefcase is stuffed with American flags and red, white and blue cookies. He takes particular interest in the number of rooms in the farmhouse, and exhibits an almost obsessive curiosity about the basement.

Residing in that basement is Haynes (Matt Farrell), a friend of Frank’s who seems to be on the run from something, and whose electrifying presence is the real reason for Welch’s visit. The slick salesman of all-things-American, whose jingoism is initially mildly amusing, soon morphs into a sadistic torturer. By the show’s end, Frank has bought into the program, while Emma literally sounds a warning bell.

Shepard wrote this farce in a hurry, and it shows. Director Athena Gundlach brings a light touch to the occasionally heavy-handed material—and being reminded of the Abu Ghraib atrocities is about as heavy-handed as comedy gets.

The cast of four is solid, and obviously relished the opportunity to be back on stage in front of an audience—almost as much as the audience relished the opportunity to be back in a theater. 

Welcome back, everyone, but please think about keeping the masks on.

“The God of Hell” runs through Aug. 1 at the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center, 209 N. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale. Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2pm. $12–$25. 707.894.2219. Recommended for ages 18+. Strobe effects and pyrotechnics. cloverdaleperformingarts.com

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