If theater is about surprises, then good theater is about pleasant surprises. To those who go to see Algonquin Productions's presentation of The Devil and Billy Markham, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. The first surprise is that the show is performed not in a traditional theater space but in a sexy, low-lit lounge. Small cafe-sized and rectangular tables sit close together and within whispering distance of a bar serving drinks during the performance and afterward, for those who want to linger. Serving as the playing space is an open-mike setup at the front of the room, with a guitar and drums.
The second surprise is that the show's text, derived from an epic poem by Shel Silverstein, is less reminiscent of Silverstein's tender children's books, such as The Giving Tree, and more like a country music song. (The poem was first printed in a 1979 issue of Playboy.) The poem tells the story of a Southern man, Billy Markham, who loves to take all bets, and the Devil, who loves to make Billy miserable. Despite the fact that the odds are stacked heavily in Beelzebub's favor, the story is equal parts darkness and light, as Billy learns how to play the Devil's game—and to even beat him at it.
The third surprise is that this one-man show is one entertaining hour of theater. From the moment Britt Herring swaggers through the crowd and onto the stage, his Storyteller character captivates the audience through his portrayals of the dim and down on his luck Billy, the clever, cajoling Devil, and a few other colorful characters who come across their path. With only a guitarist, a percussionist, and a slick lighting design (courtesy of Evan Purcell) to back him up, Herring's dramatic baritone provides all of the scenery and special effects a theatergoer needs to visualize this fantastic tale.
As he struts and sweats his hour upon the stage, switching from character to character, Herring impresses with his commitment, memory, and stamina. Through the use of accents and posturing, he easily differentiates his characters and changes them with ease. Instead of scene changes, there are pauses between chapters of Billy's story for Herring to grab a drink or show off his harmonica-playing skills. He doesn't make it look easy to do a show by oneself, but he sure makes it look fun.
Some productions have Broadway aspirations, and some simply aspire to be staged and seen. A show like The Devil and Billy Markham is too compact in length and scope for a big stage, but it's just right for the Huron Club. Surprises can come in all sizes, and at all venues.