Photo by Julia Milz.
For my money, Clive Barker is up there with H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King as members of the “Unholy Trinity of Horror.” What strikes me about his work is how he’s able to conjure up unfathomable horrors (a la Lovecraft) but somehow ground them in a reality with three-dimensional characters we get emotionally involved with (a la King). In many respects, he’s the best of both worlds and as such has always been held in high regard by yours truly as both an excellent writer of fantastic fiction and an inspiration to me as an artist.
I was never familiar with his theatrical work so when I heard that the Fantasia International Film Festival was hosting a remounting of THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL by the young Montreal theatrical troupe, Title 66 Productions, I was more than intrigued.
THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL tells the satiric tale of the Devil’s trial at the hands of the human race, with which he’s shared the world for millennia. If he can prove that it is humanity that is indeed culpable for his alleged crimes, he may return to paradise forever. In a theatrical eruption of darkness, philosophy and humor, a seductively wide range of characters travel through time to tell the Devil’s story. Whether it is angels falling from heaven in a 1212 BC Russian winter, a decaying prison cell holding accused witches in Lucerne, or a boxing match in England with stakes high enough to make a man out of a machine, each testimony seamlessly transports the audience to that time period and reveals the Devil wearing a different skin, until, by the end, he sheds them all. THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL exposes Lucifer as a fallen angel so like ourselves. Does the Devil deserve paradise? Do any of us?
I personally have a love/hate relationship with theater. As an actor, I can tell you firsthand that nothing compares to performing on stage in front of a live audience. To feed off the energy of the crowd is a drug that is simply incomparable. Plus, as a perfectionist, performing in a play for x amount of days allows me to continually tweak my performance without fear of never getting a second chance at trying something new. On the other hand, as someone coming from a background in filmmaking, and moreover, an advocate and admirer of the subtlety, realism and natural acting often found in film, watching any work of theater can be a very jarring experience given the rather flamboyant nature of these productions. There’s a self-consciousness about theater, be it the verbose texts or the larger than life performances that don’t really lend themselves to realism, that has always made it difficult for me to truly get into it as a spectator.
Having said that, I’m not immune to having my long-held beliefs shattered before me and after watching THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL as directed by Jeremy Michael Segal and performed by the cast of Title 66 Productions, I will have to make a point of giving theater another chance as this play was simply divine.
Like the best of Barker’s work, THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL is a very cerebral and existential journey into the supernatural that despite its lofty pretensions is actually very accessible to audiences looking for a good yarn with rich dialogue, an intriguing scenario with a great payoff and characters you truly get to care about.
These characters are brought to life by one of the most outstanding casts I have ever seen be it in theater or film. Delphine DiTecco, James Harrington, Lily MacLean, Kyle McIlhone, Liana Montoro, Arielle Palik and Logan Williams play a wide (and I mean wide) range of characters, oftentimes changing costumes on stage while delivering lines of one character and then spouting lines as the next. Having written and performed in a play with a similar setup, I can tell you firsthand that this is a task that only the truly ambitious and diverse of actors can pull off as you almost have to have an acute case of schizophrenia to be able to jump from one persona to another.
And while the job these actors do is formidable beyond description, it is Lucas Chartier-Dessert, who plays the titular Devil, who absolutely steals the show. On stage for virtually all 160 minutes of the performance, we truly see the arc of this character from beginning to end and the emotional journey Lucifer goes on, starting off as a reputation whispered amongst the ignorant into the very same humanity he sought to enslave. Lucas Chartier-Dessert pulls this character off so well as his charisma, good lucks and profound acting chops just lend themselves to the kind of actor I would envision playing the Devil. Truth be told, if anyone was ever looking to adapt LUCIFER (the spinoff character from Neil Gaiman’s THE SANDMAN), I think this guy would be perfect.
Of course, behind every great cast is a great visionary director and in this case, that man is Jeremy Michael Segal. Segal did a tremendous job bringing this play to life but there were three things that really stood out for me.
One, was the rather Brecht approach to theatrical staging that really intrigued me. The play utilizes a very minimal set and relies heavily upon the imagination of the actors vis a vis their body movements to transport audiences to different time periods. In some cases, there’s also a very self-awareness of the fact that this is a play with characters sometimes remarking upon whether certain lines of dialogue are an appropriate way to end the production or sometimes characters even commenting on what’s happening on stage to the audience. And then of course, there’s the show-stopping finale where Lucifer climbs the ladder to Heaven only to have the complete backdrop collapse revealing the backstage area as a way to symbolize that Heaven has been deserted and that the Devil has been duped. Very interesting stuff indeed.
Two, was the ingenious way of transitioning between sets and characters. Nothing kills the momentum of a play than having your audience sit in the dark while you scramble around on stage rearranging furniture for the next scene. Segal had his actors work in these transitions while still performing in character. Furthermore, he often had his actors changing costumes for the next character they were going to pay while still delivering lines as the previous character. I was curious going into this how they were going to arrange for these multiple scene/character changes, but was very pleasantly surprised to see how creative and quick they accomplished this throughout the piece.
And finally as a filmmaker, I was naturally drawn to the incredibly gorgeous lighting design by Alexander Smith. His transitions between scenes and his ability to truly create different worlds and moods with a flick of the switch was mind-blowing. His work really gave the play a very cinematic feel, which is probably why I was so drawn to it.
One thing to point out to anyone thinking of attending this is that contrary to whatever impressions you may have of Clive Barker and what you think a production called THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL may be about, it’s very important that you know going into this, that this play isn’t a gore-fest or even really a horror piece. It’s a very cerebral, intelligent and meditative work of art akin to Neil Gaiman’s THE SANDMAN or Mike Carey’s LUCIFER. If your only experience of Clive Barker is the countless HELLRAISER sequels that Barker was a part of, in name only, you may be slightly disappointed or perhaps more likely, confused by the piece. If however, you’re open-minded and willing to experience a cutting edge, experimental and philosophically-driven play produced by a young company looking to make a name for themselves by shattering any preconceived notions of what you may think art is, than THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL may be right up your alley.
THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL will be performed two more times – Friday, August 2nd at 8pm and Saturday, August 3rd at 8pm.
The play will be performed at Place-des-Arts-Cinquième Salle, 175 St. Catherine Street West.
Tickets are $24 (including all taxes and service charges) and can be purchased by phone (514) 842-2112 or online at the Place-des-Arts box office.