Wilhelm Reich in Hell

Oh, what a world, what a world, what a world. And I mean that in the best possible sense. I think. So the gutsy Son of Semele Ensemble has taken on some pretty big questions in its latest titanic production, a musical updating of Robert Anton Wilson's 1984 Wilhelm Reich in Hell--questions such as, "Do good and evil really exist," "What are the causes of war, cancer, and schizophrenia," and "How many layers can you put on a play before the play itself gets lost?" In this case, the answer to the last question is, "One too many."

The play is most definitely a wild ride, wherein the real-life Dr. Wilhelm Reich--an Austrian-born, Freudian-trained physician/scientist exiled by the Russian, Swiss, and Nazi governments and subsequently persecuted and imprisoned by the U.S.--must defend himself in a surreal, circus-like, afterlife trial. This Reich is no small guy, metaphysically, and his radical ideas about energy as it relates to human emotions and the cosmos--which in 1954 led to our freethinking government burning Reich's books, banning his research, and locking him up until his death in '57--are enough to fill a play or two, or more. Add to this playwright Wilson's own anarchistic rhetoric and seductive connection of American icons when it comes to morality and reality.

Then, together with the intrepid ensemble, director Reverend Mike Smith and composer/musical director Kristen Toedtman have dared to push this inherently wiggy work beyond its limits, with mixed results. Rousing musical elements often underscore the action--the live band here gets a thumbs up, with Sharyn-genel Gabriel's smashing vocals—but while Toedtman's original songs create an atmosphere of unbridled rock 'n' roll chaos, they do little to help the audience focus on the arguments at hand. The performers generally do a fantastic job, particularly the compelling Ray Paolantonio in the difficult role of Reich; Michelle Ingkavet, who wows as the prosecutor, a clowning Marquis de Sade; Nathaniel Jusiniano giving satanic judgment; and Bridget Brno, heartbreakingly funny as Marilyn Monroe. In typical Son of Semele style, the creative team puts together an attractive, action-packed free-for-all that's interesting to watch, but this time audiences may be left with questions such as, "Why?"