The God of Hell

Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo, August 28

Vanessa Downing and Ben McIvor. Photo: Gareth Davies

Vanessa Downing and Ben McIvor. Photo: Gareth Davies

Rodney Fisher has worked a small miracle at the Old Fitzroy Theatre with the highly naturalistic set that he has managed to install in the tiny space for his production of Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell, which he both directs and designs.

The old-fashioned, wooden-panelled Wisconsin farmhouse that he depicts in great detail – down to the smell of real bacon frying on the stove – creates a believably ordinary world in which Shepard’s surreal black comedy can suddenly explode.

The play is set on a remote, dairy farm where Frank (Tony Poli) and his wife Emma (Vanessa Downing) still have heifers, unlike most of their neighbours who have been paid by the government not to farm.

The day begins slowly like any other. Frank sits polishing his boots, while Emma waters the plants even though the constant sound of dripping suggests watering is the last thing they need.

But today is different. A man called Haynes (Jake Lyall) – the son of an old friend of Frank’s – is hiding in the basement, having arrived terrified. He is clearly on the run, though Frank doesn’t seem too perturbed. What’s more he emits flashes of lightning whenever anyone touches him, which, as Emma says, isn’t normal.

When Frank goes off to attend his heifers, there is a knock at the door and a suited man appears brandishing a cookie with stars-and-stripes icing as if it were a business card, or something more sinister.

The pushy, over-cheery Welch (Ben McIvor) is ostensibly there to sell patriotic paraphernalia but it’s not long before he is grilling Emma about how many rooms there are in the house and whether there is anyone in the basement.

From naturalistic beginnings, the play slides into something more bizarre, with Shepard throwing satire, black comedy, absurdity, farce and elements of a psychological thriller into the mix.

The God of Hell isn’t the subtlest play, wearing its politics on its sleeve, but it burns with a fiery anger. Written in 2004, Shepard depicts old-time America being ruthlessly overtaken by a new world where not flying the American flag outside your home is tantamount to being unpatriotic; a world where democracy is to be protected at all costs and the war of terror is in danger of turning on its own. It may be set in America but its themes chime here too.

Produced by MopHead Productions in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company (SITCO), Fisher helms an impressive production, proving once more what a terrific (and strangely under-used) director he is.

Vanessa Downing, Tony Poli, Ben McIvor and Jake Lyall. Photo: Gareth Davies

Vanessa Downing, Tony Poli, Ben McIvor and Jake Lyall. Photo: Gareth Davies

Downing gives a quietly compelling performance as Emma, who may be a rustic innocent, out of touch with the world, but is no fool or pushover. She and Poli speak with a more languid rhythm than the other two, but you see her resolve building in the face of Welch’s bullying, while Poli convinces as a decent man so naïvely set in his ways, he is a sitting target.

McIvor combines a grating, smarmy bonhomie with something more menacing, while Lyall is believably coming apart at the seams.

Their American accents sound unobtrusively authentic (to my untrained ear, anyway; props to accent coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley), while Max Lynadvert’s sound and Ryan Shuker’s lighting add to the growing sense of unease.

Running 90 minutes without interval, The God of Hell is a terrific production of a punchy, provocative play and well worth a look.

The God of Hell runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre until September 13. Bookings: www.sitco.netau or 1300 307 264

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