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Shadow Horse returns to Clive Barker's world for The History of the Devil

Peter Beard and Adam King in <i>The History of the Devil.</i>

Peter Beard and Adam King in The History of the Devil.

Shadow Horse Theatre is offering up a trial for its latest production. It’s not any number of trials of the century, or even The Trial. Instead, it’s the biggest court case in the history of humanity.

The devil is going before the court.

Horror master Clive Barker’s The History of the Devil unfurls starting this weekend at the Phoenix Theatre in Minneapolis. As the title indicates, it looks at the dark one himself and his role in human history. For director Paul von Stoetzel, it’s a show he has wanted to tackle for a long time.

"[The play] is a contradiction in terms. It’s a beefed-up Fringe show that is meant to be done with limited sets, but it is so grandiose and it spans so much time. It is so epic,” von Stoetzel says. “It’s been on my top 10 wish list for plays I've wanted to do since college.”

Last year, von Stoetzel directed another show on the wish list for Shadow Horse: Barker’s Crazyface. Like that play, The History of the Devil was written in Barker’s early career, when he toiled as a playwright and actor in England before turning his pen to fiction and films.

“The general conceit is that the devil is essentially humanity. He is the human condition fleshed out in character. It is, in my opinion, Barker’s best script. He is a philosopher. He instills philosophy into everything he does,” von Stoetzel says.

Yes, the creator of Pinhead and the Books of Blood does have a philosophical streak, and the concept of a personified evil runs through much of his work. Von Stoetzel mentions Barker’s debut novel, The Damnation Game, as a good example. That story turns on a modern-day Faustian bargain and all that entails, along with Barker’s typical twists on horror and sexuality.

In The History of the Devil the titular character is tired of ruling in Hell, and asks for a fresh trial. If it ends in his favor, he can return to the kingdom of Heaven. If not, he will be forced to live on Earth among humanity for the rest of his existence. The play moves between scenes set in the courtroom and “flashbacks,” where we are taken to fulcrum moments in history — and the role the devil had in them. These moments range from barbarians at the gate in 80 B.C. to persecuted witches in France, to other places like the Holocaust.

It’s not all weighty issues. “He also touches on bare-knuckle boxing in England during the 19th century,” von Stoetzel says.

Peter Beard takes on the role of the Devil.

“Peter was absolutely perfect. The lead should be someone who is unassuming, but you can also sense the somewhat timelessness of the character. He is 5,000 years old, and has experienced almost every aspect of humanity. What would that creature be like? He is very eloquent and learned,” von Stoetzel says. “Peter can get across his seductiveness, and to see what evil is in him.”

“What we love about the devil is that he has all this charm. The devil — no matter if you see him as Pan or nature, or horned and cloven — is fascinating. That is part of humanizing the character. The charm. That is what is fun and extremely fascinating about the play.”

The director will use a variety of techniques to bring the flashback scenes to the stage. Originally, he thought of using film for those scenes, but “it was almost too easy to have too much film and using that as a device. I ended up using it once. Other scenes use still photography or the actors’ voices,” von Stoetzel says. (There are also puppets: versions of the Devil and Jesus are portrayed as a "Punch and Judy” duo.)

The show marks the first one von Stoetzel has directed after becoming a full member of Shadow Horse, and he wants to make an impact with it. “Yes, we do dark work, but part of our mission is accessibility. I want this to be a epitome of a Shadow Horse play. Most of act one is straight theater. I don’t want the audience to be thrown in to a multi-media theater. I have been looking for a home in a theater company for 15 years. I wanted to make sure it was a with a play that was digestible and that eases the audience into the odder scenes,” he says.

IF YOU GO

The History of the Devil

Through November 22

The Phoenix Theatre

2605 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

$12-$15

For tickets and more information, visit online.