WILHELM REICH IN HELL
Strawdog Theatre Company
There’s a paradox involved in creating anarchy onstage: for it to work, it must be defined by the single autocratic vision of a director. Every minor bit of flailing, screaming, dancing, and cackling has to be orchestrated or you don’t have anarchy, you just have a mess. In its production of the punk-rock-musical courtroom drama Wilhelm Reich in Hell, Strawdog Theatre Company has to deal with such contradictions on a grand scale: playwright Robert Anton Wilson carefully constructs a chaos that challenges society’s stereotypes and labels by creating new stereotypes and labels. He seeks to reinvent drama yet uses dramatic cliches to do so. The play is breathlessly infused with a punk energy but is often static and dull.
Nothing if not ambitious, this is one of the most physically and intellectually challenging dramas to come along this year. Combining vaudeville slapstick, commedia dell’arte, surreal fantasy, straight drama, pop-culture satire, and musical theater, pop sci-fi author Wilson seeks to re-create the consciousness of philosopher, therapist, anarchist, and alleged loony Wilhelm Reich, whose writings were burned by the U.S. government in the 1950s and who eventually was convicted of contempt of court and died in a U.S. prison.
Unfortunately, in order to allow Reich his say, Wilson places him in that most obvious of theatrical locations, a courtroom in hell. Here he must defend his allegedly insane ideas against a bevy of madmen. Prosecuting Reich are the Marquis de Sade and Luitpold von Sacher- Masoch, portrayed here as circus comedians. A wide array of witnesses includes a punk rock group called the American Medical Association, who deliver their diagnoses of Reich’s insanity in aggressive, grating song. Lording over the proceedings is a white-faced circus ringmaster who insists that for Reich to exonerate himself he must prove everyone else–the court, society at large, the jury, us–insane.
Wilson creates a whirling vortex of insanity filled with intentionally mismatched elements. Marilyn Monroe drops in as a witness for Reich’s defense, to demonstrate America’s necrophilia and objectification of beautiful women. At different times Ronald Reagan, a priest, and a radical feminist turn up, embodying the maddening ideological conflicts at the center of our national consciousness. Wilson peppers his script with odd, jokey pop-culture references, lifting lines from TV shows like Star Trek and The Prisoner, as well as from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” giving his play the feeling of some ridiculous hallucination.
But Wilson won’t just leave things at that. He has to make certain that we understand the social questions he’s raising through Reich. He wants us to realize that our artificial society is grounded in illusions of Good and Evil and Sanity and Insanity. He wants us to see that we’re free beings imprisoned in a mad society that makes us act like robots. He wants us to understand that our society is a lunatics’ courtroom with arbitrary laws, labels, and definitions keeping us in check.
And so he tells us. Again and again. Through Reich’s deadly dull and obvious speeches, which utterly destroy the play’s exhilarating rhythm. Through literal labels: Reich wears a sign around his neck that reads “The Mad Scientist,” while the Marquis de Sade’s reads “The Wrath of God.” Through hopelessly unsubtle song lyrics and the intransigence of the American Medical Association, represented in their Gestapo salutes. Through any number of devices supposedly designed to encourage the audience to think for themselves but displaying absolutely no confidence in their ability to do so. It’s a problem when a play that proclaims the individual’s power to surmount the rigidity of society treats every individual as if he or she were stupid. If Wilson wants to overturn society’s obsession with stereotypes and espouse anarchistic philosophies, he’d better stop labeling people and using autocratic tools to do it.
It seems Strawdog has lately developed a pattern of embracing intriguing, challenging philosophical ideas but expressing them with all the subtlety of a boulder falling. In last season’s The Big Funk and Race and now in Wilhelm Reich in Hell, Strawdog is thwacking us over the head with its left-leaning notions. The abrasive music of Chicago composer Jeff Bek and the irritating screaming and posturing of the American Medical Association underscore Wilson’s obvious lyrics. Strawdog artistic director Richard Shavzin plays Reich as the one sane man in an insane world, reciting his speeches as if Reich were Abraham Lincoln or JFK, so that we’ll remember Reich’s ideas, not the person he was.
All the speechifying seriously detracts from some beautifully coordinated ensemble acting under the direction of the rapidly maturing Charles Harper, who creates as polished a vision of anarchy as one can imagine. Particularly delectable are Karen Hough’s hilariously bad-ass take on the Marquis de Sade and Rob Kimmel’s commandingly evil, oily ringmaster. They help to spin the swirling eddy of ideas at the heart of Wilson’s script into motion, but the mental dizziness we experience by the play’s end does not come from any rush of new ideas. After the show I overheard someone at the store next door, program in hand, ask: “Got any Tylenol?”