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Theatre in Review: The Screwtape Letters (Fellowship for Performing Arts/Pearl Theatre)

Brent Harris. Photo: Joan Marcus

Never let it be said that the people at Fellowship for Performing Arts fail to give the devil his due. As "His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape," an emissary of Satan who provides advice to junior demons assigned to drive human souls to damnation, Brent Harris is a most elegant exponent of evil. Tall, his beard neatly trimmed, impeccably clad in a red satin dinner jacket with gold embroidery (or, at times, in a scarlet military uniform), and speaking in a seductive purr that vibrates with knowledge of humanity's wayward nature, he owns the stage as if by satanic decree. Watching him perform is like having your own evil imp whispering in your ear, saying, Go ahead, do it; after all, what's the harm?

And indeed, most of The Screwtape Letters consists of the title character advising his nephew, Wormwood, how best to lure the human to whom he has been assigned -- known here only as The Patient -- into perdition. Because his advice has been penned by C. S. Lewis -- the play has been adapted by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean from Lewis' 1941 fantasy -- the ideas are supple and surprising ones. Early on, he notes that "jargon, not argument" is the most efficient way of keeping The Patient from the Church. Noting that times of trouble often have a way of focusing the mind toward matters spiritual, he argues, "How much better for us if people died in costly nursing homes." Many are bound to find provocative the comment "A moderated religion is as bad as no religion at all," as well as the observation that people help damn themselves by denying themselves real pleasures. (He is equally fascinating on the grievous sin of spiritual pride, offering remarks guaranteed to give pause to many of today's prominent religious leaders.) Lewis wrote some of the most alluring prose of his time, and such phrases as "the peculiar kind of clarity that Hell affords" and "One of our great allies is the Church itself" linger in the mind.

Speaking at a graduation banquet for young demons, Screwtape laments the bill of fare, commenting sourly on a meal that consists only of "a municipal authority" and a "lukewarm casserole of adulterers" with the affronted authority of a four-star Michelin chef eyeing a Swanson TV dinner. In truth, Harris makes a meal of the text, visibly savoring every juicy word and ripe irony. Note how the phrase "our father's house" ends in a long, quiet hiss, like the sound of air escaping from a tire; how he comes to a full glottal stop when he tries to pronounce the word "love;" and how, when signing off, he divides his name into two separate syllables that run up the vocal scale. And when Wormwood begins to lose control of The Patient and Screwtape's native assurance begins to crack, with fear and fury taking over, Harris' presence is fierce and commanding.

Nevertheless, The Screwtape Letters cannot be considered a complete success; as is the case with The Great Divorce, the other Lewis work currently being presented by FPA at the Pearl, we have been given a piece of prose, staged and fancied up with plenty of effects, rather than a genuine drama. McLean, who directed, has done just about everything possible to keep things lively, thanks to an inventive design team. Cameron Anderson's set places Screwtape and his assistant, Toadpipe, on a raked cobblestone stage on which a curvy ladder leads to a metal postal box through which Screwtapes sends his missive. (They vanish with a whoosh, sounding like the old pneumatic tubes one used to see in department stores.) It is only after some minutes that Jesse Klug's cunning, colorful lighting design reveals that the back wall of the set is a kind of reliquary, covered with human bones. John Gromada's original music and sound design goes a long way toward filling out the underworld in which Screwtape dwells; key effects include an explosion-filled battle, a sequence delineating the cacophony of modern life, and rumblings that seem to come from the mouth of Hell itself.

However, none of these touches -- and a couple of amusing updates, including the sight of Screwtape brandishing a book by Madonna and a burst of disco music -- are sufficient against a script that begins intriguingly but cannot escape the fact that it is essentially a tract. There is a certain drama to Screwtape's struggle to maintain a hold on Wormwood, but the discussion of The Patient and his vicissitudes becomes increasingly abstract, because he remains a distant, undifferentiated figure whose troubles are related to us third-hand. After a while, it comes to seem like so much spiritual shadowboxing; just when the battle for The Patient's soul becomes most urgent, The Screwtape Letters begins to bleed energy and interest.

Still, Harris is a sight to behold, and Toadpipe, played by a rotating trio of actresses (Marissa Molnar at the performance I attended), is an appropriately feral creature dressed in an unholy array of scales and feathers. And based on the audience reaction, I suspect a great many people will be taken with The Screwtape Letters. But if this company chose to put on real plays rather that theatricalized sermons, it might reach a much wider audience -- and wouldn't that be God's work? -- David Barbour

(14 January 2016)

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