Theater Review - Carnival of souls

Energetic effects exonerate heavy-handed Reich

Wilhelm Reich in Hell recalls history’s cruelty to its title character. The famed and discredited psychoanalyst studied and then broke with Sigmund Freud, was expelled from Nazi Germany and saw his books burned in the United States, where he died in prison in 1957. That history only poorly remembers Reich may be its unkindest cut of all.

Robert Anton Wilson’s surreal musical play suggests that his troubles didn’t end in death, and finds Reich reliving his trials in an infernal courtroom with overtones of both circus and cabaret. Jack in the Black Box Theatre embraces the script’s unsubtle politics and quaintly “radical” theatrical gimmicks for results that are both heavy-handed and engaging.

A Ringmaster (Jim Sligh) serves as judge and introduces the proceedings. Reich’s prosecution is handled by the Marquis de Sade (Wade Tilton) and Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (Jeff Feldman), the founding fathers of sadism and masochism. Both sport clownish white-face makeup and frequently break into song and old-fashioned comedy routines.

Wilhelm Reich (Allen Hagler) musters his defense while wearing manacles, black-and-white striped pajamas and, in the second act, a dunce cap. Through his torments, Hagler captures Reich’s world-weary disillusionment and his intellectual passion. Reich’s theories sound crackpot at first: Modern life has “armored” mankind with muscular tensions and respiratory blocks, which lead to robotic habits, sexual perversion and ultimately war.

Director Jon Tyler Owens crams the play with symbols of war and sex. Written in the 1980s, the play frequently references the nuclear arms race, and a piercing whistle goes off every time another Hiroshima-capacity bomb is built. Images of depraved sexuality begin even before the play itself: The audience enters as dancing girls (choreographed by Montica Pes) gyrate robotically to No Doubt’s “Hella Good,” as if on an endless loop. Hell examines the destructive effects of sexism by considering the woes of Marilyn Monroe (Lisa Parks), who appears in slide show-style glimpses of her nude Playboy shoot, and later as a witness for the defense.

Hell strives to be a kind of vaudeville of ideas, but requires dead-on comic and musical timing. The performance I attended had yet to find confidence and was undermined by bad accents, uncertain sound cues and verbal stumbles on big words like “psychoanalytical.” Sligh proved best with the play’s Alice in Wonderland level of quicksilver changes, alternating from English jurist to Texas politician in mid-sentence, and even letting loose a funny Shatner imitation.

For nearly the first hour, Hell unfolds more like a string of stunts than a consistent argument. The better stunts involve light audience participation, like the way Act One ends with the “courtroom” cleared while Reich still speaks, imploring our attention. When Reich argues his defense in the second act, he and some of his witnesses, especially Parks’ Monroe, finally bring some sympathy and humanity to the evening.

After their first two plays, mylady/malady and The Geldings, Jack in the Black Box Theatre has clearly been eager to stage a full-blown, meta-theatrical evening like this one. The text, with its Cold War and Margaret Thatcher references, seems stuck in the 1980s, while its style feels almost quaintly nostalgic for 1960s guerrilla theater. But Hell displays plenty of energy and makes a spirited case for the value of dissent in the face of government oppression.

Plus, it succeeds in restoring interest in Reich and the injustice of his case. If his ideas were such quackery, then why did the U.S. government burn his books? Maybe he really was onto something: Wilhelm Reich in Hell reminds us that where there’s smoke, there’s probably fire.