We love the Devil. We love to be frightened of him and to blame him for ills and evil in our lives.
Clive Barker has often explored this theme, including in his latest novel, The Scarlet Gospels, which is set in Hell, and in his earliest plays from the 1970s — like The History of the Devil, now being presented in an engaging, stripped-down production by Shadow Horse Theater.
As the Devil, Peter Beard is as cool as a Miles Davis trumpet solo. While the play ping-pongs between present and past, good and evil, Beard's Devil maintains his distance.
After thousands of years isolated from the kingdom of Heaven, the Devil is up for a kind of celestial parole. A trial has been convened to answer a simple question: Was he responsible for all the death and horror and turmoil of the last 3,000 years, or was it just human nature?
The play follows the Devil from his first moments on Earth in prehistoric Russia until World War II, where we see him cataloging the names of the dead. In between, both prosecution and defense make their cases.
We have a stop in the desert with Jesus, told via a Punch and Judy-like puppet show. Then we travel to 15th-century France, where an accused witch has decided that she might as well actually be in league with the Devil if she is going to be accused, imprisoned, and tortured for it.
All the while, there are strange portents of what is happening on a heavenly scale. Men who were sent to serve witness summons to angels commit suicide on their return. When called to the court, the spirit of Dante can only angrily complain in Italian that he has been waiting for centuries to cross the pearly gates.
Barker has a lot of stories on play: the Devil and his trial, the mystery of Heaven, and the very real foibles of the humans in court, who have been assigned to prosecute and defend the fallen angel.
Beard's withdrawn performance builds up the idea that this figure is definitely not human. We gain some sympathy for the Devil, even as we see him manipulate people into betrayal and death for his own amusement.
The remaining performances are a mixed bag. Charla Marie Bailey offers up a tough and angry prosecutor and Matt Saxe makes for a perfectly maddening judge. Others have a tendency to fade into the black curtains. That's okay if Beard's Devil is presiding, but the play slows to a crawl when the actors are all trying to underperform each other.
Like so much of Barker's work, The History of the Devil is funny, frightening, and thought-provoking. Shadow Horse's production brings that out loud and clear.
IF YOU GO:
The History of the Devil
2605 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
Through Nov. 22; 800-838-3006