In the preface to his universally adored novel The Screwtape Letters, Christian author C. S. Lewis claims that “there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Now the author’s own “unhealthy” interest in devils and their practices has inspired the Fellowship for the Performing Arts’ sublime stage production at the Theatre at St. Clement’s; the only excess of which is the team’s intense delight in reinventing of Lewis’ text for a new audience. For the unfamiliar, Lewis’ deviously clever novel is comprised of thirty-one letters from a learned demon named Screwtape to his bumbling nephew Wormwood, who is attempting to win a mortal’s soul over to the “father below.” As it turns out, things are very academic in this Oxford Fellow’s vision of the netherworld. Every demon must graduate from an institution known as the Tempters Training College before heading to Earth to harvest souls for demonic consumption. Screwtape, now retired after an illustrious career, serves as his naïve nephew’s mentor in the art of steering human thoughts away from “the enemy” and (unknowingly) toward eternal oblivion.
When Screwtape was first published in 1942, Lewis’ keen insights into religion, war and the general state of the world served as a piercing reprimand to worldly cynics and devout believers alike. One can’t ignore the implications of mounting a production like this in the current climate of religious schism. A morbid curiosity might lead some contemporary audience-goers to consider what Screwtape would have to say about partial-birth abortion, for instance. The devil only knows.
This stage version by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean presents a complete and compelling depiction of Lewis’ snarkily astute narrative. Each letter to Wormwood is dictated by Screwtape (played by McLean) and dutifully transcribed by his demonic secretary, a necessary and helpful theatrical convention named Toadpipe (played by Karen Eleanor Wight). This allows Screwtape to strut about his study without vanishing into the physical business of writing, which is something that might have meant Loveletters-esque damnation for the piece. Undoubtedly, Fiske and McLean have performed some generous cutting and pasting of Lewis’ text. Most notably, their edits energize the last twenty minutes of the production.
Fiske directs Screwtape in a broad, fantastic style, calling to mind the quixotic milieu of film directors such as Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. The advantages of adapting the text and then directing the adaptation are clearly evident; all of Fiske’s stage conventions seem to have been custom built into the narrative. For instance, the process of sending and receiving letters involves Toadpipe scaling a serpentine ladder that extends the full height of the stage and waiting for a bolt of energy to pulse into a suspended mailbox. This theatrical Rube Goldberg is just preposterous enough to add a dash of necessary sorcery to the piece, but is executed so unpretentiously that it enhances Lewis’ text without distraction.
Fiske is fortunate to have this far-fetched exhibition rendered by capable artists like scenic designer Cameron Anderson, light designer Tyler Micoleau and sound designer Bart Fasbender. When you hear the words “one-person show,'' the expectation for technical design is (perhaps unfairly) very low. Imagine the glee in discovering that this one-person show takes place on an intensely raked stage cantilevered above a pool of fog, that it builds atmosphere with appropriately disturbing soundscapes in every scene and that it occasionally elicits mesmerizing explosions of lightening and hellfire. More importantly, the technical wizards implement this sensory icing with honors.
Of course everything hangs on Max McLean, who assails Lewis’ text with more politician than perdition. It is fitting that Screwtape frequently cites “jargon” as the best tool in a devil’s repertoire, because McLean’s ruthless command of the language alone proves enough to entertain. Even the demon’s exaggerated pronunciation of his own name betrays the aristocratic zeal of a Charles Dickens villain: “SKAH-ruuuue-WAH Tay-PAH!” McLean is less convincing, however, when the script calls for Screwtape to descend into bestial fury. Some of these snarling moments teeter on the brink of parody, but thankfully McLean always quickly reverts to his droll center. As the significantly lower-caste demon Toadpipe, Ms. Wight carries out her role’s growling and bone-gnawing with undomesticated charisma.
This disarming production of The Screwtape Letters, perhaps the most interesting piece of reverse-psychology in literature, will no doubt provoke the same theological musings among contemporary intellectuals that Lewis intended half a century ago. We must ask ourselves: are cynical pride and dismissive self-delusion really the “gradual path” to Hell?
If so, a lot of us are probably… well… screwed.