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Talented cast, but 'God's Country' misses mark

Staged readings seem to be all the rage in Ashland at the moment, providing smaller and less well-funded theater companies the opportunity to mount good plays at a nominal cost.

The latest offering from Livia Genise productions is a staged reading of "God's Country," Steven Deitz's perturbing play about white supremacy in America. In this case, the delusional neo-fascist ideology on display is that of the so-called "Order" — a group of racists who were responsible for, among other crimes, the murder of Alan Berg, a prominent Denver-based radio talk show host who was gunned down in his driveway after sounding off repeatedly about the group on his show. The play deals with the racial ideology of the group, their trial for various crimes, and the murder itself.

Genise has brought together a veritable who's-who of regional community actors and semi-professional talent from both sides of the business. Rick Robinson of Oregon Cabaret Theatre plays Berg. David King-Gabriel, one of Camelot Theatre's finest, is here as "Actor Nine" (his role is mostly as one of the racist conspirators). Haley Forsyth is also on hand playing one of the trial lawyers, and there are 10 other artists from around the Valley who lend their considerable talent to the effort.

While this production is timely and somewhat interesting, especially for those who are in strong opposition to the current occupant of the White House and his alleged racialist predilections, the show itself falls flat, in large part thanks to Deitz's writing. It feels patchy and disjointed, with bits of information that seem to float independent of one another and don't ever quite stitch together to make a whole.

Because the show is based on a true story, there is not much real drama to be had. Instead — despite a strong combined effort from the many talented performers involved — the whole thing feels labored and cliched. Wherever there is a section of the play where the racism apparently needs to be made more clear, the audience is treated to exhibitions that are about as subtle as a baseball bat to the chest. Actors stomp loudly on the stage in a feigned goosestep. Nazi salutes are aggressively thrust towards the back row. Images of white nationalist paraphernalia and photos of Dylann Roof are projected onto a screen at downstage right. These are all, probably, valiant attempts by Genise to use whatever is available to add some semblance of intrigue to the areas of the play where Deitz has fallen short.

But in the end, the racist characters seem like loony right-wing caricatures, and their civil servant detractors present as people who are trying to do their jobs in court, but can barely contain their contempt for the people who they are prosecuting. While most of us may detest racists, the combination of weak playwriting and wishful directing on this production of "God's Country" is not conducive to audiences drawing their own conclusions. Ultimately, it's just not that good a play, and despite the broad reach of the subject matter, which covers everything from the Turner Letters to the Kennedy assassination, the so-called "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," issues of race and hostile government, gun rights, property rights, the "Northwest Mountain Republic," and myriad other things that offer a crazy-pants dive into the helter skelter world of the radical right, I felt tired and disoriented by the end, and keeping my seat felt like a favor rather than a pleasure.

I believe in supporting local artists and productions, and I would encourage you to do so if you feel inclined. Sometimes they're a bullseye (as was Ms. Genise's production of "Chess" last year). This time, however, things went awry and "God's Country" misses the mark.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.