The raw emoting and whiny arguing that plague many experimental productions are, thankfully, in short supply in Lucifer Tonite, Denver playwright Don Becker's scathing ode to the vexations of science, religion and various other weighty subjects. Propelled by Nils Kiehn's tour-de-force turn as a raconteur-ish Satan, the two-hour work stimulates playgoing nerves that, for too long locally, have been deadened by the dumbed-down din of floor-show-style musicals, stentorian classics and "Laugh-at-me-or-else!" revue sketches. Despite its in-your-face tone and pervasive irreverence, Becker's play feels refreshing and provocative rather than angry or pompous: You're reminded of a time when local fringe groups offered up edgy alternatives to mainstream fare instead of trumpeting their own self-importance.
The show's success lies in the fact that Becker, Kiehn and director Dan Hiester feed off each other's strengths while offsetting each other's weaknesses. There's an effective, if sometimes discordant, harmony to their efforts that's disturbing without appearing fractious or manipulative. The incandescent setting and lighting designs, for instance, complement the brief collages of video images instead of clashing with them, and Kiehn's masterful delivery of a few poetic passages soars with the kind of poignant feeling and choreographed abandon that come only with artful collaboration. Indeed, even though Becker first performed the central role when the play premiered four years ago with Denver's CityStage Ensemble (a recently dormant troupe that plans to resume operations this fall), one never gets the feeling that Kiehn's interpretation is a shadow of the author's original.
The lithe performer easily articulates the quirks in Becker's oddly poetic dialogue while comfortably scampering about a stage that's adorned with a small desk, a few television monitors, an elevated platform representing a hospital room, a small seaside-style bar graced with a string of playful lights and an archway leading to a hauntingly illuminated, twisted cross (Alex Weimer crafted the creepy setting and Verl Hite fashioned the heavily saturated lighting design). Never out of control but always poised to explode with apocalyptic rage or giggly humor, Kiehn takes us through several fractured -- and sometimes labored -- versions of familiar Bible stories.
By far the most compelling of these is the playwright's account of Lucifer's forty-day temptation of Christ in the desert. As performed under a yellow light that intensifies each time Kiehn executes a balletic gesture with a piece of lightly colored, flowing fabric, the temptation scene, which occurs near the end of Act Two, starkly reveals Lucifer's twin-hearted devotion to pleasure and pain, reaching its apotheosis when Kiehn whispers, "Jesus, if you love me, leave me alone." Another episode that summons the Devil's deep-seated passion for his heavenly father comes in Act One, when Kiehn gives us Lucifer's riveting take on being exiled from heaven, a precipitous fall that began, he says, when he ripped out one of his two hearts and blinded God with it. It's an astonishing moment that's rivaled only by beautifully lyrical lines such as "My heart is the music box of time" and blunt-force comic remarks like "Life is a box of hand grenades; it's your job to find the dud."
Becker also sprinkles a few George Carlin-esque riffs throughout, such as one on the merits of excrement and diesel fuel, followed by the pithy observation, "Reality is the aging butt boy of truth." There's also a clever scene in which Kiehn delivers Lucifer's version of the Ten Commandments David Letterman-style as his sunglasses-wearing, mostly silent assistant, Gabriel (ably played by actress Rose Leon), does her best Paul Shafer imitation from her perch behind the wooden bar. As he delivers a few funny ruminations and catty remarks (sex in Paradise, Lucifer claims, was about as stimulating as "a Methodist handshake"), it's clear that Kiehn's command of Becker's wicked sense of humor is as sure as his grasp of the playwright's philosophical ramblings. And Kiehn drives home the play's central point with unrelenting urgency: It's perverse that we're so fascinated with lofty concepts like the nature of good and evil, but can't be bothered with what's happening to our next-door neighbors (an idea that, ironically, echoes a similar teaching found in the New Testament).
Since somebody will undoubtedly take parts of Becker's play as sacrilege, Kiehn's performance probably won't qualify as a full-fledged miracle. Even so, it just might serve as the necessary encouraging breath that, locally, at least, will cause dramatic experiment's cold torch to flicker to life once again.
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