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God’s Country

Maria Smith | Monday, March 1, 2004

Hate is an emotion with many faces. It can be blatant and violent, but it can also be quiet and subtle and grow in places where it would never be expected.Steven Dietz’s play “God’s Country,” performed by the Department of Film, Television and Theater last weekend, and examines the full range of racial hatred. The play follows the true story of a white supremacist neo-Nazi group known as The Order that operated in the Western United States in the early 1980s. The group participated in forgery and robbery in order to raise funding for its anti-Semitic initiatives. The group plotted the assassinations of prominent Jewish public figures. Eventually several members of The Order were convicted of the murder of Denver-based Jewish radio talk show host Alan Berg, that becomes the focus of the play.Dietz describes the full spectrum of racial hate in his play, moving from intimate personal interactions between Order members and their families, to Order ceremonies and actual transcripts of courtroom investigations. The play moves in an increasingly intense montage of scenes culminating in the conviction of nine Order members. Many of the members portrayed in the play are still serving jail sentences today. The play was not easy to watch or to perform.”It was intense, it really was,” senior Adel Hanash said. “The whole time you have to tell yourself this really happened. This is based off real events.””We actually had someone walk out of auditions during the skinhead scene,” senior Justin Williams said. “They were so upset by it they left.””God’s Country” provides actors with a different sort of challenge from many plays. Dietz uses an ensemble cast in which actors are assigned numbers instead of names. There is no main character or lead, and several actors play more than one role. The play also features a nameless boy and a nameless voice, which are crucial to the play’s development. At many points the actors seem to be less individual characters than part of an overarching characterization of hate and the institutions that support or oppose it. The method is particularly effective considering the topic – as the members of racial hate groups band together under a unifying idea. The actors in the play band together to portray a unified concept.Cast chemistry is an important aspect of a play where the actors have to work together so closely. Many of the actors in the play have worked together before, and their history together showed in how well the cast interacted in last weekend’s performance.Hanash, cast as Actor Three, was one of the few characters that played a single role and did not frequently interact with the other characters.”A lot of my part is just to watch what goes on onstage, and to watch it come together was amazing,” he said. “So much of what they did, they had to be at the same pace, on the same level, and it really clicked.””God’s Country” is a play about vicious ideologues and rabble-rousers, and all the actors were more than vehement enough for their roles. However, the most rousing scenes, especially those performed by senior Tom Connor, might have been more effective if the play had some scenes of greater subtlety to provide a contrast. By the end of the play the scenes had all reached a volume that was especially deafening for audience members seated in the front row, only a few feet from a shouting lawyer or white supremacist preacher.Much of the play revolves around a young boy, played by Brittany Bacon in the FTT production. The boy is the son of Order members and is being brought up to believe in their doctrines of racial hatred. He also serves to highlight the duality in the characters of people who seek to strengthen their love of home and family through unequivocal hatred of other groups. Bacon played the part of a young boy very convincingly, but the play would have benefited from a more developed personal interaction between the boy and his parents.The lab theater in Washington Hall can be a difficult venue to use effectively, since at points it puts the actors less than a foot from the audience. However, it gives groups the luxury of choosing where to seat the audience to most effectively watch the play. For “God’s Country,” director Meg Ryan chose to have the audience sit on either side of the performers. The arrangement can make staging difficult since the actors must always be facing away from some audience members. However, this production of “God’s Country” took much of its power from having the audience so close and surrounding the performers. This is a play about hate prospering in small communities in hometown America, and watching the play from close enough to see the labels on Bacon’s jeans and smell the cigarettes Alan Berg, played by Adel Hanash, smoked onstage only brought the play closer to home.”I think this play was probably originally designed for a normal stage, and the technical aspects would have worked better on a normal stage,” Williams said. “But being right up in someone’s face was an advantage. It made the show so much more intense and powerful.”Ryan also used costume color well to contribute to the collective sense of the play. Most of the actors dressed in black and white, and occasionally red or blue, whether appearing in business suits or preaching in robes. Berg stood out in his brown corduroys as someone outside the circle of what was going on, and clearly a victim of dangerous circumstances.The cast only had a month to rehearse before performing its show, and several actors had conflicts with other plays or graduate school auditions in Chicago. The short rehearsal time only made their emotional performance of a difficult play that much more effective.”To be presented with something like that was a great opportunity,” Williams said. “The play itself is not fun, but getting to do something different and portraying a character that I am nothing like is the interesting part of theater.”