.The Devil’s in the Details

A powerful Satan reigns in hellish Clive Barker play.

British author Clive Barker is best known for his horror novels and movies such as Hellraiser and Nightbreed. Barker fans may also have delved into his paintings and illustrations, comic books, and video games. Last and least, Barker also dabbled in playwriting, and Ragged Wing Ensemble has finally given Barker’s 27-year-old play The History of the Devil its Northern California premiere in a Richmond warehouse space.

The concept is that the Devil is put on trial by humanity, although really it’s a parole hearing. Human attorneys and a judge are drafted to determine whether the fallen angel has served his time and should be permitted to reenter heaven. Various witnesses are called from throughout the ages, and their testimonies give the opportunity to explore various tall-tale tropes about what happens when Satan comes to town.

Barker’s dialogue, particularly in the courtroom scenes, is stiff and less stage-ready than Plato’s dialogues, so these fables are occasionally devilishly clever oases of action in an otherwise static play.

Ragged Wing does what it can to liven it up, with decidedly mixed results. There are some remarkably inventive touches in Jeffrey Hoffman’s direction and Amy Sass’ choreography, such as having characters ascend on a staircase of batons held by the ensemble. There are a lot of visually arresting moments like this: actors enter from unexpected places, or hang from knotted ropes. (Knots are an omnipresent theme in the play.) But the production is shaky on the basics, particularly in the acting. Other shticks like having the officers of the court whirl around between scenes just make the show seem like a campy Halloween panto.

It’s a feeling exacerbated by the cutesy narration of El Beh as “the actor,” a role shared with teenagers Anna Kennard and Hillary Milton, all three hamming with hokey grins as if this were an impromptu reading for Mr. Barker’s fourth-period English class.

Joui Turandot’s costumes capture an impressive variety of eras, and Plamena Milusheva’s simple set proves to be deceptively versatile as cloth descends from the ceiling to form classical columns. These hide the actors as they walk and talk, but that’s a blocking problem.

What makes this staging work is a particularly sharp performance by Keith C. Davis as Lucifer. He’s just as charming and magnetic as the Devil ought to be, complete with an aftertaste of meanness and sleaze, and commands attention from the moment he enters.

Unfortunately that moment doesn’t happen nearly early enough, and the stuff before it is pretty hard to take. The setup to the trial is awkwardly written to begin with, but it’s more awkwardly performed.

Beh starts with some solo cello that’s pretty powerful in its own right. But then comes the clunky narration, shrill screaming, and awkward exposition as the legal team is assembled. Kevin Copps as the Devil’s advocate (get it?) initially seems to be mostly playing the accent as a befuddled Englishman, but he becomes more natural as Copps gradually abandons the accent. Amy Penney’s delivery is flat and she tends to jump her cues as the prosecutor, and both she and Fiona Cheung as her co-counsel and lover convey seriousness by scowling all the time.

The demons in the play are combined in Ragged Wing’s production into Belial, a hooded, hunched figure with a dinosaur tail and a face like a bundle of twigs. It’s a spooky visual, but it’s much stronger in concept than in execution. Whatever supports the thick tail that sometimes thumps against set pieces sticks out under the cloak as if Belial had a futon strapped to its back. The two or three actresses under the cloak speak in unison with screechy demon voices, but unfortunately the dominant voice sounds like a twelve-year-old girl playing the wicked Witch of the West.

The dialogue is written as if the demons could be easily mistaken for normal people, and having Belial look and sound so grotesque puts the onus on the human actors to make us believe that they’re seeing something different than we are, which is too much to ask.

The meat is in the flashbacks, which give the ensemble a chance to play multiple over-the-top roles. The first is a haunting glimpse at the newly fallen Lucifer, including a troubling sex scene with a “retarded” girl played broadly by Sora Baek. (Both the terminology and portrayal of developmental disability are stuck in 1980.) Ara Glenn-Johanson is imposing as an accused witch with nothing to lose. Davern Wright has a fine swagger as a great architect protected by his lovers, two amusing flibbertigibbet sisters (Glenn-Johanson and Erin Maxon). Copps is funny as Jesus arranging his own execution, as is Gary Grossman setting aside Southern judge for Edwardian fop. The production has many such redemptive moments, much like Satan himself, but the good never quite outweighs the bad.


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