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The God of Hell: Scars and stripes forever

Sam Shepard dark comedy hits PushPush

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Playwright Sam Shepard never mentions the Bush administration or the Iraq war by name in The God of Hell. The play had its New York premiere the week before the 2004 presidential election, however, and Shepard's allusions are unmistakable. An enigmatic government man barges into a Wisconsin farmhouse, foists American flags on the hapless residents and, when his mask starts slipping, makes declarations such as, "We can do whatever we want, buddy boy. That should be clear by now. We're in the driver's seat."

The challenge for PushPush Theater's production, directed by talented Atlantan-turned-Chicagoan Lawrence Keller, is how to make The God of Hell about more than scoring political points. The play may be minor Shepard, but Keller and company enhance the actor/playwright's powers to make audiences squirm.

At a remote, deliberately generic "heartland" family home, cattle farmer Frank (Matt Stanton) provides shelter for a mysterious old friend (Alex Van), whom Frank's wife, Emma (Shelby Hofer), suspects is some kind of fugitive. The talk about frying bacon and raising "replacement heifers" has a condescending ring, but Hofer and Van sympathetically convey characters caught in increasingly insane situations. Keller and the cast create engaging rhythms and character details, such as the particular way Emma obsessively spritzes her houseplants.

The God of Hell comes billed as a "farce," which evokes door-slamming comedy and not images of Abu Ghraib-style hoods and electrified genitals. The play may be more descriptively called a dark political cartoon, with Welch (Tim Habeger) serving as an evil, suit-wearing authority figure ready for the street theater of a protest march. Fortunately Habeger underplays the role with a fiendish twinkle, coming across as a smiling, falsely genial figure, like a small-town bank manager, up until he brings out the torture devices and protective goggles.

PushPush Theater's The God of Hell evokes astonished laughter and dawning horror in equal measures, to end on a haunting note. For many artists, being galvanized by recent political trends has been a mixed blessing, giving their works urgency at the expense of subtlety. Fortunately, PushPush's The God of Hell effectively brings out the play's most upsetting idea: not that government figures could turn on you, but that people under your own roof could help them do it.

The God of Hell. Through Aug. 25. $15-$35. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. PushPush Theater, 121 New St. 404-377-6332. www.pushpushtheater.com.

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