Angels and devils hover in the local theater this season--and it's about time. First the Broadway road show Angels in America graced the Auditorium Theatre last fall with its tale of God in retreat. Now we have Lucifer Tonite, by Denver's most intense writer/performer, Don Becker. But while Angels could only be performed as an expensive extravaganza, Lucifer offers the immediacy of small theater, along with a tour-de-force performance from Becker guaranteed to make the hair stand up on the neck and the soul rattle restlessly in its cage.
As the show begins, the stage at Jack's Theatre is black except for the red and blue yin-yang symbol on the floor. Three TV monitors offer abruptly edited, collage-style programming at key moments, but most of the time they're blank, just waiting to suck us in: In Becker's world, television is an instrument of the Devil. Lucifer (Becker) enters growling and begins a rant about time--how he created it and how we need it. Time is money, and the love of money is the root of all evil; therefore, time is evil. At the back of the stage, the angel Gabriel (played with taciturn presence by Terry Burnsed) silently waits on Lucifer, tending bar like an alchemist, helping him change clothes.
Gradually, Becker will strip down to his black pantaloons and make himself vulnerable to the public gaze in a way most actors couldn't even if they were stark naked. Becker was in an accident some years ago that took one arm and badly disfigured his torso and other arm. As he disrobes little by little, he uses his body as a metaphor for the stripping bare of truth.
Becker's real goal is to expose evil for what it is. The way he sees it, evil is dependent on human beings for its very existence--and he's not talking just about the epic malignancy of a Hitler, but of garden-variety corruption. Becker is trying to come to terms with the meaning of suffering and the reason human beings are cruel. So his Lucifer begins by turning the story of the Garden of Eden on its edge. We hear from Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and finally Jesus--but all from the Devil's perspective.
Setting up one paradox after another, Becker manages to question traditional Christian doctrine even as he mocks contemporary self-satisfaction. All the great literature about the Devil, from Dante and medieval morality plays to Milton, C.S. Lewis and George Bernard Shaw, comes to mind during the course of the evening because Becker is not only highly literate but also profoundly attuned to the truth contained in art. Becker's Lucifer, however, is adamantly twentieth-century--a kind of lounge lizard with beer in hand. References to the whole range of contemporary global atrocities crop up in unexpected ways--and TV is witness to them all. In Becker's schemata, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll aren't the exclusive fountains of evil, but they at least water the shoots of selfishness and brutality. Everybody thinks he deserves to go to heaven; it's the other guy who should go to hell.
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And yet there is nothing fundamentalist or rigid about Becker's moral vision. All the suffering of his difficult life is contained in this piece, and there is much rage, torment and love in it. As angry as he seems to be about human cruelty and self-indulgence, he is likewise compassionate about the ubiquitous "next-door neighbor." Lucifer Tonite is what is called in theological circles "the negative divine": We know what must be true because we have seen what is false.
It's a wild trick Becker plays on us, too, because what Lucifer says is so seductive. All the seven deadly sins--and all the minor ones as well--surface in language and experience that we all recognize as our own. We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is an infernal vision.
Lucifer Tonite is without question the most important piece of avant-garde theater I have ever seen in Denver--the most truly experimental, iconoclastic and intelligent work by a contemporary performance artist. It is more outrageous than either Star Fever or Beethoven 'N' Pierrot and comes without the burden of a large budget to get in the way of the viewer's complete involvement. Nothing stands between the viewer and the meat and meaning of the stream-of-consciousness monologue by the Devil himself.
Becker is in your face for two hours, and his performance will shock viewers not used to cutting-edge excesses. But he never condescends to us, and so the journey he takes us on is worth it--neither dull nor predictable but, finally, fully alarming.