It's not hard to believe that the Devil has done earthly time as an erstwhile boxing promoter or even a professional critic, but did he really head up a Viennese Masonic lodge for fifty years? And has the same horned creature who's rumored to frequent the power corridors of the Kremlin and Pentagon also been known to take solemn refuge in the words of the Lord's prayer? More important, as Clive Barker's The History of the Devil; or, Scenes From a Pretended Life wonders, is Lucifer responsible for the proliferation of evil, or is he merely a catalyst who exploits people's God-given inclination to commit ghastly deeds?
Though he's best known for penning horror/fantasy works like The Books of Blood and writing and directing the first work in the Hellraiser film series, the 47-year-old Barker began his literary career as a playwright. His early epic dramas are overwrought and somewhat unwieldy, but they reveal his trademark talent for weaving together fantastical characters and apocalyptic visions with a profusion of violence and gore. And while director Robert Burns Brown pays dutiful homage to Barker's youthful (and best-selling) obsessions with raw sexuality and smutty talk, he also distills and crystallizes the dramatist's cheeky observations about sin and redemption.
The LIDA Project's far-from-mock trial of Satan is being presented at the new MK-Ultra Theatre. As performed against a setting of faux-melting black boxes stacked behind a large sand pit (a nicely functional, near-primordial set designed by Hannah Boigon), Barker's eerie tale unfolds in an almost cinematic fashion, jumping over time and place at the slightest utterance or gesture. Perturbed at being cast as the world's scapegoat, the Devil (Nils Kiehn) demands to be set free from Hell and readmitted to his rightful place in Heaven. To that end, he calls for a re-examination of his "case" and enlists as his advocate -- who else? -- a notorious appeals lawyer, Sam Kyle (Dane Torbenson). Seemingly at Lucifer's command, the trial takes place in Africa, the supposed cradle of civilization (and, as if to demonstrate that he's got more on his mind than mere Christianity, the London-born Barker punctuates the beginning scene with a couple of South African references).
The History of the Devil; or, Scenes From a Pretended Life, presented by the LIDA Project through December 18 at the MK-Ultra Theatre, 2008 West 32nd Avenue, 303-282-0466
There, amid the sweltering heat and ubiquitous insect clouds, Lucifer conjures images of past misdeeds that show the inherent failings of human beings, failings that he maintains amount to exculpatory evidence. The image-conscious Felicity Popper (Tara M.E. Thompson) assumes the role of judge, and the mousy but focused Catherine Lamb (Jenny MacDonald) takes on the duties of prosecutor. Cate, as she's called, is ably assisted by the naively sensuous Jane Beck (Amy Glassman), whose professional interest in discovering her seductive adversary's secrets crosses over into personal curiosity. For his part, the crafty defendant calls on his underworldly followers, Belial (Onan Herne), Procell (Anita Harkess), Sonneillion (Lucianne Lajoie) and Verrier (Kelley Wade Zobel), to impersonate the various historical figures that their boss is accused of corrupting. From time to time, a black South African domestic, Milo Milo (Rodney Wess), is alternately pressed into service as an itinerant messenger, unwitting pawn and, at one point, a megalomaniacal Jesus.
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Although the judge initially instructs opposing counsel to keep their remarks as brief as possible, the proceedings drag on for two-and-a-half hours as we're transported to ancient Eastern Europe, Alexandrine India and locales that illustrate the horrors of the Inquisition and World War II (on opening night, a glitch in the lighting system caused another 25 minutes' worth of delays at the top of the show and during intermission; Act Two wound up being performed under the fluorescent glow of house lights). But on the strength of Burns's inventive approach and several strong performances, Barker's long-winded diatribe remains arresting and, at times, startling.
Whether he's writhing nude in the sand after his tragic descent from grace or assuming a host of proverbial pleasing shapes, Kiehn renders a compelling, surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the infamous fallen angel. He's properly repulsive when describing his delight at seeing a trio of babies pierced by a barbarian invader's spear, for instance, but immediately makes a convincing argument for his relative innocence in the matter by saying, "I may have toppled a column, but the house was unstable." A few minutes later, Kiehn reinforces the notion that Satan need only influence behavior rather than control it when he smiles condescendingly to one quizzical character and asks, "Why would I want monsters [for followers] when I have you?" And during a wickedly funny temptation of Christ (in which the Devil declares that the desert isn't big enough for two messiahs while simultaneously helping his nemesis plan for a spectacular, sun-setting-over-the-hillside death), Kiehn summons his character's primal, heartrending resentment as he rages, "I was to be prince of the world. But now the world was Christian."
Leading the supporting cast with an accomplished performance is Lajoie, a University of Denver senior with a remarkable ability to combine inner luminosity with technical proficiency; she runs the emotional gamut from sex-starved nun to imperious noblewoman to demonic dancer. Her antics with sidekick Harkess invariably spice up the show's more lackluster episodes. Although Torbenson and Glassman are frequently relegated to thankless plot-forwarding roles, both rise to the occasion during scenes that reveal their characters' respective dilemmas. MacDonald lapses into barely audible speech patterns, internalizing what should be a fierce debate over Satan's authority and standing, but she manages to convey Cate's determination to give the Devil his prosecutorial due. And Herne's turn as a brutish boxer is full of detail and shading, as is Thompson's flittering magistrate, Zobel's stalking hellion and most of Wess's supernumeraries.
Technical difficulties and Barker's volubility aside, Brown and company's efforts effectively address novelist Samuel Butler's assertion that, since "God has written all the books," the Devil's side deserves to be heard. Above all, though, the production serves as a welcome reminder that experimental fare can provoke thought and challenge convention without obliterating form or abandoning style.