Oh Devil, You God

Mary Worth stages a triumph of evil with Clive Barker's The History of the Devil

This has been the sort of week where I have needed my very own Ota Shinichiro. Those of you who watch Iron Chef on the Food Network know of Ota--he is the sideline reporter, and has a helpful habit of interrupting main commentator Fukui Kenji with a cry of "Squeeze-Ah!" (more properly, "Fukui-San!", but it sounds like "Squeeze-Ah!") every time there is a detail of the show that needs clarification: "Squeeze-Ah! I just spoke to Iron Chef Morimoto Masaharu, and he says this is the first time he has cooked with yogurt!"

Attending the Mary Worth Theatre's production of The History of the Devil, I am immediately beset with questions, beginning when I am handed a program. What the heck is the deal with these programs? They look like the ones published by Playbill!

Squeeze-Ah! The programs for this play were published by Front Row Center, and, yes, they are very much like those published by Playbill. According to their Web site (www.TheFrontRowCenter.com), Front Row Center is put out by the publishing division of Drama Queen Books LLC, an online reseller of theater books based in St. Paul. The History of the Devil is the first such program they have published. They provide local theater companies with these spiffy programs for free, and in turn they sell advertising in the publication.

Satan (Charles Hubbell) chews over the gordian knot of evil in The History of the Devil
Satan (Charles Hubbell) chews over the gordian knot of evil in The History of the Devil

This play was written by Clive Barker. Didn't he write that movie about the guy with the pins in his head?

Squeeze-Ah! You're thinking of Hellraiser, and, yes, Clive Barker wrote and directed the screenplay, as well as crafted the popular short-story collections called Books of Blood and novels such as Cabal and Weaveworld. Prior to finding success as a horror and fantasy novelist and film director, Barker wrote and directed plays for a small British theater troupe called the Dog Company.

There are some past reviews of Mary Worth productions posted in the doorway: Valley of the Dolls and Lunatic Cellmates. I recognize some of the actors listed in the cast: Mary Jo Pehl and Rich Kronfeld. Don't I?

Squeeze-Ah! Yes, you do. Mary Jo Pehl played Pearl Forrester on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and Rich Kronfeld plays Wally Hotvedt on Comedy Central's Let's Bowl. Additionally, Kronfeld was the notorious Dr. Sphincter, whose bizarre cable-access television show you still watch obsessively. By the way, shouldn't a theater critic be able to reference cultural sources beyond what he sees on late-night television?

Hey! I recognize the director, Joel Sass--and not from television, either!

It's true. In fact, History of the Devil brings to mind Sass's direction of Marat/Sade last year at the Theatre in the Round. Both plays center on a debate: In the case of Marat/Sade, it was the debate between the two title characters from the time of the French Revolution, and in this instance it is a debate between the devil (or, more properly, his defense team) and God (or, more properly, a team of prosecutors). Set on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, History tells of a trial in which Satan petitions for a return to heaven. And, as with Marat/Sade, in the end the debate is the least interesting thing about the play.

Sass's Marat/Sade was sabotaged by its outrageousness, which has always been the problem with the play. Set in a madhouse, the polemics of the title characters gets lost in the spectacle of bare-breasted lunatics, swinging from bars and wrestling with guards as their eyes bug out and their tongues loll from their mouths. But for Barker, the central trial of Satan is somewhat beside the point; it is merely an excuse to tell a series of nine vignettes about Old Nick, presented as evidence. There are comic scenes like Jesus' confrontation with the devil, which is recast as a vaudeville of blasphemies, including punch lines that feel incomplete without comical "Wah-wah-wah" sound cues: Get thee behind me, Satan! Why? Because you're in my way! There are also scenes that are genuinely chilling: Satan meets a German soldier rescuing a Jewish infant from a mass grave; Satan builds himself a mechanical son and sets him to bare-knuckle boxing, then flies into a rage when the lad develops an unexpected sense of compassion for his rivals. Sass mounts all this--covering more than 3,000 years and scores of characters--on a mostly bare stage with a cast of 12 performers. He has, it seems, something of a genius for shoestring epics.

Barker's conception of the devil is ingenious, and Sass, in typical Mary Worth tradition, has cast him well. Barker's Satan is beset by miseries and humiliations: His wife is a harridan, his servants imbeciles, his attempts at romance inept and doomed, his grandest plans turned, literally, to shit. Here he is played by Charles Hubbell, a thin and ropey actor who seems built entirely out of sharp points. He is a strong comic performer and, like many comic actors, is capable of being absolutely terrifying when the need arises. There is a thin line between comedy and fascism, as Bobcat Goldthwait used to say, and Hubbell walks that line throughout this production--actually, and more properly, he prances it, dressed in black snakeskin boots and a series of ridiculous, immodest costumes. How different from Ota Shinichiro, who, I hear, showed up for his first day as sideline reporter dressed in blue jeans.

Squeeze-ah! Yes, that's true.

 
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