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Homeland Insecurities

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Sam Shepard is a playwright whose life and work has always been linked to the American West. Much of his writing is about the west and many of his memorable plays from the 1970's premiered on this coast.

In the last few years, however, Shepard's plays have not faired well here. His last play, The Late Harry Moss, was the California theater event of the 2000 season, featuring a cast that included Sean Penn and Nick Nolte. Sadly, the premiere in San Francisco was a major disappointment. The text was meandering and remote, which neither Shepard (as writer and director) or his starry cast could make sense of on stage.

The premiere of his newest play, The God of Hell, also boasted a first-rate cast (Randy Quaid and Tim Roth) but it too was poorly received when it debuted in 2004--one week before the Presidential election.

Now, two years later, Shepard's attempt at political farce is here in Los Angeles, in a new production directed by Jason Alexander. Not having seen the original staging, this revival may indeed be an improvement; but it hardly matters, because The God of Hell is such a naive, poorly written play, that it's hard to imagine anyone saving it from being a thoroughly tortuous theatrical experience.

The word tortuous is key here, because proponents of the play may argue that Shepard is trying to bludgeon the audience to make a point. The God of Hell revolves around a U.S. government agent who spies on Wisconsin farmers and gleefully tortures another citizen who knows too much about what the authoritarian regime is up to. The final scene involves brutal, on-stage torture that closely resembles what went on at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

But simply putting torture on the boards does not make for bold theater. And it's not the violence that makes this play torturous--it's Shepard's lazy generalizations and imprecise writing that boils complex issues down into simple binaries (a technique that is all too similar to the administration Shepard's play ostensibly was written in protest of). This is what makes The God of Hell so painful to sit through.

Sam Shepard is a master of probing the gray areas of the human spirit, but with this knee-jerk protest play, he's abandoned his strengths in favor of moralizing--in a vain attempt to make the gray areas of politics seem black and white. There are many real threats to the republic both at home and abroad; yet The God of Hell is unable to capture any of them of stage.

Back of the Throat is another new play about the reach of government into people lives post-9/11; unlike Shepard's Hell, however, Yussef El Guindi's play manages to dramatize this situation in a provocative manner. His play looks very much like The God of Hell, but instead of hassling Fargo-speaking farmers, Back of the Throat's Gestapo-like Feds interrogate a young, Arab-American writer.

What elevates Back of the Throat is that El Guindi has carved his characters out of basic human emotions. His persecuted writer is not a saint (he may even be or become a terrorist) and his agents, though unsympathetic, are fleshed-out characters, and not mere thugs or crude symbols of fascism.

There's violence in Back of the Throat. It's much less graphic, but because the scenario feels real, the effect is more visceral, and more invasive. El Guindi may have intended the play to be a polemic against racial profiling, but the actors in this Furious Theatre Company production probe the depths of pettiness and self-interest in each of the characters, giving Back of the Throat a complexity that is sorely needed on our country's dramatic, as well as political, stages.

Back of the Throat runs through July 29 at Pasadena's Balcony Theatre; The God of Hell runs through July 30 at the Geffen Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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