Hell to Pay

Love is pain, pain produces suffering, and suffering is the state of being that leads one to God. But not before one has made the straight and narrow trip to hell, where, according to British playwright Ronald Duncan, no one really suffers anymore--including a handful of romantic writers whose collective works serve as the catalyst for Duncan's philosophical play The Death of Satan.

Written nearly forty years ago, Duncan's surprisingly modern drama explores the role of Satan in a contemporary world that has no fear of him. Or, as one character argues, how is the Devil to tempt people if they've already given in to every temptation? Under the assured direction of Christopher Tabb, CityStage Ensemble's current production of Duncan's play becomes a verbal tennis match between the Devil's own Don Juan and an opposing tag team of modern-day accidental tourists. And even though the playwright double-faults on a few of his lengthy discussions, Tabb and his actors (some of whom have been double-cast) nonetheless convey the essence of Duncan's themes in this thought-provoking production.

As the play begins, Lord Byron (Larry R. Mitchell), Oscar Wilde (Mark Fossey) and George Bernard Shaw (Jeff Richards) hold forth in the lounge of Club Hell (a marvelous set adorned with Edvard Munch-like flames, designed by Petra Ulrych). As the men read newspapers and strike up a game of poker using their famous literary works as betting currency, Satan (Marta Bernard) instructs her favorite disciple, Don Juan (Robert Mason Ham), and his servant, Catalion (Stephen Pearce), to make a pilgrimage to the earth's surface. Charged with their mistress's mission to ascertain humankind's indifference to the powers of the underworld, the two bottom-feeders magically appear in Spain on the exact site where Don Juan once engaged in his romantic exploits. There they meet up with two vacationing married couples, Evelyn and Lionel (Kelly Williams and Steve Gravatt) and Marcia and Anthony (Beatrice Casini and Mitchell). For the remainder of the two-hour-plus show, Don Juan attempts to seduce the wayward wives, only to be foiled by their particularly liberated views: Evelyn, a crass, smarmy American socialite, wants quick, anonymous sex from her otherworldly paramour; Marcia, on the other hand, implores Don Juan to appreciate her for her mind.

Most of the actors display a firm grasp of Duncan's predictable morality play. Ham is especially effective as the passionate lover made obsolete in a world obsessed with comfort and safe choices; in addition to his adequate portrayal as a monumentally bored and indifferent husband, Gravatt's turn in hell as a befuddled bishop is a model of sputtering platitude; and Williams keeps us on the edge of our seats with her nearly over-the-top portrait of the sassy nymphomaniac.

However, Duncan's rhapsodic arguments sometimes sound more like a set of stuffy, academic pronouncements than a series of spontaneous discoveries made by characters caught up in a heated debate. Part of the problem is that the performers know where the playwright is headed with his line of reasoning and, as a result, telegraph several of the answers to us before a bona fide battle of wits can be joined. For the most part, though, Tabb and his crew manage to fresh-mint the polemic of an eccentric playwright who was by his own admission more doubting Thomas than he was Thomas Aquinas. Which makes the pain of sitting through the production's more static moments almost worth the suffering.


The Death of Satan, presented by CityStage Ensemble through June 15 at the Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, 433-8082.


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