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Photograph by Dave Lepori

Happiness Is a Warm Rifle: A young boy gets his first firearm from the Order in 'God's Country' (from left, John Flanagan, Tim Hendrixson, Matt Arnold and Rebecca Stow).

A Chill in the 'Country'

Troubling issues haunt SJ Stage's 'God's Country'

By Heather Zimmerman

REALITY CAN BE SO sensational sometimes that entertainment based on true events has become a whole genre unto itself. Stephen Dietz's exploration of the white supremacist movement, God's Country, portrays some events horrifying enough to seem almost fantastic--but that's just the point, they're not. In its production of Dietz's play, San Jose Stage Company sometimes tends a little to close to "When Neo-Nazis Attack"; the production is at its best when it lets the chilling facts speak for themselves.

God's Country is based on court records from the trial of the Order, a paramilitary white supremacist group that grew in power in the Pacific Northwest during the early '80s. The group pulled off some major robberies to fund its cause, which included the assassination of people whose views they disagreed with, in particular Denver radio-talk show host Alan Berg, an outspoken liberal and a Jew.

The play meshes scenes of the Order's rise to power, Berg's radio show and courtroom testimony from the trial, with lawyers speaking to the audience much as if we were the jury. San Jose Stage Company takes maximum advantage of its intimate theater space--the closeness of the theater facilitates a claustrophobic feeling of having the more aggressive characters in our faces--and of having an ugly subject unrelentingly held up for our examination.

The cast is truly an ensemble, with almost every actor portraying a variety of roles, from members of the Order to attorneys to callers on Berg's show, a device which takes away the comfort of perceiving members of the Order as individuals on the lunatic fringe--they really could be anybody.

The only exception is the role of Berg, portrayed by Randall King, who appears in no other roles. King is excellent, turning in some of his most impressive work yet. All the performances are strong, if at times too strident. Director James Reese has turned up the volume on just about everyone, figuratively and literally, as if this material will become even more frightening if performed more broadly and spoken loudly, whether it's Order leader Robert Jay Matthews (John Flanagan) calling his "Aryan warriors" to battle or a lawyer presenting the case background.

Reese also makes an interesting choice in mounting four TVs toward the audience that show video slides that range from "mug shots" of the Order members to images of burning crosses. These TVs offer a disquieting reminder of the technology increasingly available to hate groups like the Order, and the images are disturbingly familiar scenes straight from the evening news. But at the same time, the shock value of using this imagery seems redundant, as if we need reminding of what sorts of activities the Order members might engage in.

To be sure, it's deeply unsettling to be surrounded by actors dressed as KKK members or to watch a Nazi flag unfurl over the stage, but the most troubling scenes in God's Country are its least "spectacular": watching three women quiz a young boy on the tenets of the Order as they go about household chores, or seeing that same boy kneeling reverently at a shrine to Adolf Hitler.

Like Alan Berg, who championed free speech, even for those who would eventually murder him, God's Country is most powerful when it lets everyone have their say, most eerily effective when the facts presented offer us the realization that they might please some audiences as much as they horrify most others.

God's Country plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Feb 27 at the Stage Theater, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $16-$25. (408.283.7142)

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From the February 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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