Who knew Hell was a bureaucracy? Or, as C.S. Lewis terms it, a "lowerarchy," complete with processes, procedures and layers of management. Fellowship for the Performing Arts' "The Screwtape Letters," which played at Minneapolis' Pantages Theatre this weekend as part of its national tour, provides an in-depth look at Lewis' wry interpretation of Hell and one of its most well-known spokespeople, His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape.
The work is a stage adaptation of theologian and novelist Lewis' 1940 epistolary piece by the same name, in which Screwtape, a mid-level demonic functionary, coaches his nephew Wormwood, a tempter-in-training, in the fine art of how to damn a human soul. It's a witty and erudite primer that turns the universe on its head: God is the "Enemy," Satan is "Our Father Below" and human beings are a particularly scrumptious food source.
Related as a series of letters dictated to Screwtape's secretary Toadpipe, the piece is a cerebral one, singularly lacking in dramatic action. That presents little impediment to Max McLean, who brings a showman's panache to the role of Screwtape, savoring every drop of Lewis' wit and providing an outsized characterization that's entertainingly theatrical. For the first half of the show, Screwtape is an urbane and charming pragmatist, providing his pupil with meticulous coaching and curbing Wormwood's excesses with the advice that "the safest road to Hell is the gradual one." His veneer of dulcet sophistication begins to come apart in the second half of the play as it becomes increasingly apparent that Wormwood won't be bringing home the bacon, so to speak. By the end, he's revealed as the demon he is, a picture of sibilant rage, bathed in a lurid red light and sharpening his knives in anticipation of his next meal.
It's a larger-than-life performance that makes up in sheer bravado for what it may lack in subtlety, and McLean is to be commended for lending such immediacy and fire to what is fairly dense material. Less successful is the conception of the role of Toadpipe (played alternately by Tamala Bakkensen, Beckley Andrews and Karen Wight). Clad in a costume that can best be described as Hell's version of fool's motley, Toadpipe spends a good deal of the show gyrating wildly across the stage, emitting a garbled cacophony of squeals, grunts, hisses and groans, and, on one occasion, vomiting. It's an unnerving performance that serves to distract from, rather than add to, the action of the play.
That quibble aside, the dramatic staging of "The Screwtape Letters" is an ambitious undertaking, and this production offers an intriguing, if chilling, tour of Hell that's worth the trip.
Lisa Brock writes regularly about theater.