God's Country/Spooks | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

God's Country/Spooks 

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GOD'S COUNTRY

Shattered Globe Theatre

At the beginning of Shattered Globe's production of God's Country, two video monitors mounted above the stage play footage of violent acts and intolerant people--racial riots, the Third Reich at work, grinning Klansmen, etc--to the accompaniment of "Sympathy for the Devil." The song is a little worse for wear, the concept equally threadbare. The film montage is often clumsily put together.

But by God, it doesn't much matter. The thing really works. There's no denying the driving power of the Rolling Stones song (even if it has been played to death), and there is certainly no denying the impact of the images.

It's an apt introduction to the evening. God's Country, Steven Dietz's exploration of militant white supremacism in America, is somewhat lacking in dramatic craftsmanship. Depicting bits and pieces of the federal trial of a group of fanatic white supremacists known as the Order for the assassination of radio talk-show host Alan Berg, and scenes dramatizing Berg's show before he was killed, Dietz's play is a scattershot presentation of the policies, idiosyncrasies, and procedures of groups such as Aryan Nations and Citizens at War. In fact the trial and the Order themselves get lost in the shuffle as Dietz crams in as much information about the state of present-day white supremacism as he possibly can--sacrificing dramatic structure to his sense of outrage.

But that's something of a quibble: what Dietz has given us is less a play than a sledgehammer. It sets out to affect its audience, and never mind finesse. The outrage is genuine, the message fervent, the situations chilling. A Klansman soberly posits that abortion is a conspiracy to wipe out the white man and that 96 percent of all abortions are of white Aryans. A skinhead who confesses that he doesn't want to hate anymore is nailed to a cross and brutalized by his comrades. Members of the quasi-religious Order are equipped with Mac 10 automatic weapons (capable of firing 900 rounds a minute) in their battle for God and a white nation. Tongue in cheek, Dietz also gives us two bumbling members of a fictional organization (I hope it's fictional, but in the midst of all this documented insanity anything might be possible) called UCOCC--United Confederation of Concerned Conspiratologists--who insist that Ann Frank's Diary was written by Aristotle Onassis. "Beware of the ridiculous," one of them warns, suddenly ominous. "It will one day rule."

The twisted logic of hate, the unflinching cruelty, the inhumanity of these pleasant-looking white people is well presented. There is no question that the topic is timely and frightening and that the play has immediate visceral impact. The only disappointment is that Dietz does not seem concerned with giving his fanatics any real human qualities, with the exception of one or two monologues delivered by people on the fringes of these organizations. The exceptional cast in this production, directed by Roger Smart, try hard to fill in the blanks, but as Dietz's dialogue includes a great deal of (authentic) rhetoric, it's difficult for both actors and audience to get beyond the garden-variety glassy-eyed, speechifying zealot none of us could live next door to without knowing full well he was a stinking Nazi. The members of the Order in this production would be easy to avoid on the street; they wear khaki and a grim sort of holiness on their sleeves. It might have been more frightening to see them in ordinary clothes and on their best behavior.

Smart designed the set as well, and he seems to have a knack for making the most out of Shattered Globe's impossibly narrow space--his design for this show is not as elaborate as his design for The Dresser last year, but very canny. He has divided his audience into two angled banks of seats facing one another across his nearly bare raked stage. Dietz may not provide us with well-rounded people, but Smart does so by putting the other half of the audience right before us. As you watch the play, you can't help but observe the people across from you too, and watch the play as it's reflected in their faces. It's almost comforting to have them there, for despite the play's obvious flaws, Shattered Globe's energetic production makes Dietz's sledgehammer come down hard.

SPOOKS

Chicago Theatre Company

Here's the premise: an urban couple move into an antebellum Virginia mansion only to find that it's apparently haunted by its former owners--slave masters who don't care to have an African American couple there. It's a funny, slightly tasteless idea, and Spooks might have been first-rate if playwright Don Evans had done more than flirt with the play's deeper implications: racism transcending even death is a grim but rich concept for a comedy.

Howard Johnson is a stuffy novelist to whom it's a source of delicious irony and great pride that a place built through the sweat of slaves now belongs to a black man. But in his attempt to supplant the old white masters he reveals his own shortcomings: he can't hold on to his heritage and turn the tables at the same time. When he's not being sickeningly condescending toward the old handyman and housekeeper who mysteriously claim to "come with the house," he's downright nasty to them. He treats his young wife Karen--an energetic city girl with little formal education but much common sense--as though she were rebellious but beloved chattel. He won't allow her to get a job or hold a different opinion, and seeks to educate her Henry Higgins-style.

Howard is so self-involved it's no wonder he ignores or explains away the eerie things going on in his house: furniture and pictures move, Karen claims to have seen a ghost, and the lights go on and off. When the housekeeper tells him, "This house don't like colored people," it only strengthens his resolve to stay. "As African people we are prone to superstition," he explains to his frightened wife and--indicating the housekeeper and the handyman--"especially those of us without the benefit of an educaton."

Howard is a pig of the first order, completely out of touch with human instinct and resting on the laurels of his African heritage while betraying a touch too much pride in the white Englishman who was his great-great-grandfather. Karen is a materialist, but a warm and canny one with a sense of humor. The two old servants are like creatures from another age--unapologetically superstitious, and suspicious of anything new. Evans sets them all up beautifully, then proceeds to bury them in a lot of frantic spook-house high jinks and a plot lifted straight from Scooby-Doo. The characters experience no growth, self-recognition, or change in their relationships--Howard might believe in ghosts by the end, but there's no evidence that he's realized he's a shallow creep or that he's going to change. Karen remains vaguely aware that this man is stifling her, but she doesn't leave him or in any way take charge of the situation.

In this Chicago Theatre Company production, directed by Morgan Proctor, Spooks is uneven, mostly silly, and often enjoyable, with a satisfyingly spooky drawing-room set by Patrick Kerwin. Tiffany Hall is a sparkling, kittenish Karen, Oba William King proves himself adept at physical comedy with his loose-limbed handyman Son, and Bridgett R. Williams adds just the right dash of charlatan to true-blue-mystic housekeeper Lucinda. E. Milton Wheeler does not fare as well with Howard, giving him an ersatz English accent so atrocious it's impossible to tell if it's supposed to be Howard's affectation or if it's just the actor's amateurishness. Wheeler also suffers from some basic acting problems, not the least being how to hold a coffee cup that is supposedly full.

I can tell those purists who think The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is the height of comedy that this production, though not quite so sophisticated, delivers entertainment along the same lines as that Don Knotts classic, thanks mostly to some inspired performances. But as theater--well, the first act is just over an hour and the second is 20 minutes. This is an unfinished play, whatever Don Evans may think.

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