At the time of the French Revolution, William Blake wrote, in “The Marriage of Heaven & Hell,” that Milton had been “a true Poet of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Several generations of Gothic tales and Romantic and “Decadent” works followed, transforming the devil into a modern creature, even an aesthete—quite a jump from medieval Satan or the Mephistopheles of the Renaissance. And before Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky assailed Progress by saying the cleverest trick of the devil was to convince mankind he didn’t exist, Jean-Paul Richter, well before Nietzsche, told of a dream in which a voice announced that God was dead.
Here and there, the devil turns up on stage as a litigant. In the movie version of Stephen Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch contends with Old Ichabod for the soul of a New England farmer. Breach of contract is the devil’s case; an American cannot serve a foreign prince, is how Webster begins his defense. Ah, says the devil, I’ve been on this soil longer than anybody!
And now Ragged Wing Ensemble is performing Clive Barker’s The History of the Devil, at Central Stage, right off I-80 on Central Ave., Richmond Annex—a play from the ‘80s which the author said is best described as “John Milton meets John Grisham.”
With the officers of the court drawn, or dragged, to the ends of the earth, the devil goes on trial quite willingly, wanting to ascend once again to heaven. After an opening statement, he asks the court to rule, so sure is he of his innocence—a simple self-description should suffice. But instead a parade of witnesses are called to testify, some of them lost souls, literally wriggling out of their graves, and the testimonies become flashbacks that take the audience—more or less seated as the jury—back to the devil’s first contact with humankind (great bruises on his back where the wings were before he fell); to a Hellenic settlement (where the Greeks act more like Romans) in South Asia, barbarians vying with the corruption of the locals; to a dungeon for women convicted of witchcraft, to a bareknuckle prizefight in 18th century London ... even the testimony of Lucifer’s estranged wife Lilith, a moment that clearly unnerves the defendant.
Ragged Wing stages the play, directed by Jeffrey Hoffman, to bring out their physical (and total) theatrics.
It opens and is punctuated by cello music from El Beh (who played the lead in Woman’s Will’s Good Person of Szechuan), later playing a very willing South Asian boy among the Greeks. A hoary Belial (Anna Kennard and Hillary Milton) absconds with barrister Sam Kyle (Kevin Copps) from London to Africa to plead the defense, where ambitious prosecutor Catherine Lamb (Amy Penney) and her assistant and lover Jane Beck (Fiona Cheung), who later falls for Lucifer—appearing before good ole boy Judge Felix Popper (Gary Grossman).
Erin Maxon is a show-stopping Lilith, with glass-fracturing voice. Davern Wright as a robotic boxer, Ara Glen-Johanson playing a cynical convicted witch, and Sora Baek, in a variety of roles, all show fine physical theater technique—as does Ragged Wing cofounder Keith Davis, a fine Lucifer, whose eyes either plead or burn, alleging it was mankind who seduced him.
Ragged Wing’s multi-skilled performers are at their best when the going gets polyphonic, demanding tight ensemble harmonies in movement, gesture and voice. There are excellent, often delightfully funny, moments, whole episodes even, of History of the Devil, where they start to show their stuff, especially when cofounder Amy Sass’ choreography comes into its own, like the Laocoon-like daisy-chain pose the chagrined court officers are discovered in.
But the troupe’s not entirely well-served by Barker’s play, which tends towards the univocality of the genre auteur, in thrall to its own conceptualism, sometimes more like the scheme for a sci-fi or fantasy novel, or TV pilot, than a play on a live stage. One of the old Gothic or Decadent works, which Barker would probably claim as predecessor, cut and adapted for contemporary theater (and Ragged Wing’s considerable strengths) would serve better—as Artaud’s polyphonic version of Shelley’s (and Stendhal’s) The Censi served to launch his Theater of Cruelty, certainly part of Ragged Wing’s own heritage.
In any case, Ragged Wing is one of those local independent companies always worth seeing, their mission apparent in everything they do. And they’ve staged five very different shows since their inception—no mean feat for practitioners of such a demanding art.
THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL
Presented by Ragged Wing Ensemble at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (with a special matinee at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19) through Nov. 1 at Central Stage, 5221 Central Ave. No. A1, Richmond. $15-$30. (800) 838-3006, www.raggedwing.org.