Friday, February 03, 2006

God's Country - Capitol Hill Arts Center

The CHAC’s production of “God’s Country” is very well done. Taken as a whole, the production is a steady line of intensity that never withdraws. Within the confines of the court, there are a few specific moments when three attorneys focus all their energy on vehemently questioning Denver Parmenter. The force of these scenes is undeniable. My personal stress level rose quite a bit and one can feel the tension rise in the audience. Stressful as those scenes are, the robbery and infiltration scenes are the most unnerving and breathtaking scenes. When a large man wearing all black and a ski mask points a black semi-automatic handgun at one’s right eye from three feet away only to be followed by another black-clad individual holding the barrel of a shotgun to the side of one’s head, one begins to have the feeling of real fear. One can begin to grasp a slight, but ever-present, connection to the plight of George King, the armored car driver who was attacked twice by The Order.

As one watches John Farrage sit in his booth above the action of the stage and berate his callers as Berg then control the clamor of the court as the judge, one can’t help but be amazed. His rapid transitions from the ever-composed Voice of the Court and the ever-enraged “Last Angry Man” are extremely precise. There is not one moment when one can notice a moment’s hesitation on Mr. Farrage’s transitions. Shawna Wilson also portrays an amazing array of emotion. The span from a narrator of the white supremacist movement, to the farmer’s wife, to Mrs. Berg is extremely widespread. Her most potent role is as Mrs. Berg. As she tells the story of learning about Mr. Berg’s death, the tears down her cheeks seem genuine and heartfelt. It is not a far stretch from her portrayal of the farmer’s wife. Unfortunately, she seems to overdo the physical aspect of the desperate search for her child. This overdone clawing pulls the viewer out of the action of the moment enough to drop the emotion. The boy, Adam Berns, seems to be a very brave and very composed young man on stage. His reciting of the codes of The Order seems entirely natural as he plays football with his Order-member father. Outside the context of the play, his acting skill is phenomenal. Within the context, it’s frightening. To see a boy his age reciting the rules of becoming a member of The Order and to see him wearing a KKK robe carrying a MAC-10 is a very disconcerting sight.

The design of the set is very simple. The differing layers provide four to six different pulpits for speaking at one time. The viewer never has to try to determine where focus should be because, though much of the dialogue is extremely chaotic and overlapping, the raised layers allow the speakers to all have the focus based solely on their inflection and tone. This, clearly, puts a lot of pressure on the actors, but they handle their weight well. However, the simplicity of the set doesn’t allow for the slides that the script calls for to show images of the men involved in the crimes. Though, since Stephen Dietz himself assisted in the direction of this specific production, one can allow this slight deviance from the original writing. In addition to that small deviance, there are a few scenes removed from the original script in order to shorten this production. Though they are missed, they are hardly noted at all due to the seamlessness of the cuts.

The costuming is fairly well done. The KKK robes appear relatively authentic and definitely get the message across. The only noticeable defect in the costuming is fit. Kate Wisniewski seems almost overpowered by her overly-padded shoulders in her purple blazer. Though shoulder pads were the style of the time period, it seems to be more than a woman of her slim build would wear. Also, John Ulman’s covert black utility vest seems nearly to consume him as he sits slouched in the witness’ chair during the legal proceedings. However, other than the oversize of a few costumes, the attire is all very accurate and convincing.

The lighting is extremely crucial in this production. The fades and spots lead focus exactly where it must go, relieving some of the aforementioned stress that is placed on the actors. Though it is very simple lighting with no tricks or flourishes, it brings a sense of reality to this all-too-real story. Using such well-timed and direct lights creates a world that is very clearly real.

A frightening observation that illustrates the violence behind the actions that made this story is discovered by watching the props put away. Box upon box of guns and knives are stacked atop each other; each one is foam lined and filled with the weapons. Along side them, the other props lie: a cross, a few bibles, flags, and the gavel. This juxtaposition and proportion illustrates exceptionally well the violence based on religion on which The Order and the other white supremacist groups mentioned throughout the story rely.

This production deals with the hatred and disillusionment behind the violence and cruelty of white supremacist, and all hateful groups. The story of Allan Berg’s death, though tragic in its own right, is just one of many stories of hatred, death, and evil that occur constantly in our world. Additionally, the fact that the guilty were not tried for the full weight of their full crimes is a crime in itself and is what allows this hate to live on in our society. Mr. Dietz illustrates this magnificently in his compilation “God’s Country.”

A group called The Order, based on the organization in the fiction white supremacist novel The Turner Diaries by Dr. William Pierce, is indicted for their crimes of robbery and murder throughout the Pacific Northwest. Though the novel may be a work of fiction, “God’s Country” is all too true a story. Many people were killed in this organization’s path, including Allan Berg, a well-known Jewish Denver, Colorado talk show host and the group’s founder and leader, Robert J. Matthews. The group’s actions were of violence and theft. Repeated attacks on armored cars and stores in order to acquire funds for their group caused a widespread chain of crime and a great deal of money to be stolen. “God’s Country” takes place, primarily, in the courtroom in Seattle, Washington where members of the group are being charged with racketeering and conspiring to racketeer. They were never tried for anything else, including murder, because it seemed too expensive to go through the legal proceedings again.

The script itself is an amazing compilation. Stephen Dietz put together a remarkable span of information in an absolutely spectacular manner in order to speed the audience through the trial and the events of the eighties. There is no specific antagonist or protagonist and no truly noticeable climax. The play is simply anything but simple. It follows the actions of the group and the legal proceedings that occurred as a result of their actions. There is no true winding-down either. The play ends with the conclusion of the trial and the hard truth that people like Robert J. Matthews and the leaders of such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations exist today and work today toward the dominance of the Aryan race. There is no way to avoid that fact and that is the message that Dietz is getting across to the audience. One doesn’t watch “God’s Country” for a fun evening on the town. One watches “God’s Country” to hear the telling of a story that spelled the death of many individuals not long before we young college students were born; a story that points to the hateful events of our own time that have spelled the deaths of countless people.

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