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FringeNYC: 'History of the Devil' [Review]

Fantasy author Clive Barker does what he does best in this witty, gripping production.

If you know and enjoy fantasy/horror author Clive Barker's novels, you will love this play. If not, consider it your introduction into the aesthetic of this prolific, celebrated author, whose writing explores fantasy elements within a modern framework, with all of the gritty realism that entails. In History of the Devil, the writer takes on, well, the history of Lucifer, explored through the lens of a court trial.

Reframing the Devil

The Devil in this world is not evil, just misunderstood, or at least that is what (s)he wants you to believe. After being exiled to earth, (s)he is up for parole, which leads to the arrangement of a trial conducted by modern humans, to determine if (s)he really is guilty of "crimes against humanity," or if (s)he can return to heaven and the God (s)he desperately misses forever. Calling witnesses from across time and space to retell their stories, the lawyers seek to understand what is evil influence and what is simply "human nature."

This production, directed by Lucia Bellini and Joshua Young, is a multimedia extravaganza, with the fantastical settings being created through the use of lighting, media, and sound. There are excerpts of Satan’s appearances in popular media that pepper the show, while flashbacks transport the audience back into the world of the witnesses via projected backdrops. It is a clever device, one that shows the multiplicity of the Devil across time and popular culture all in one.

Subversive, Seductive and Uniquely Modern

We enter the play from Lucifer's point of view, but the depictions of his actions are intriguingly ambiguous. The Devil orchestrates affairs and bloody betrayals, but also saves certain individuals from brutal crimes that the divine being had no involvement in at all. This tension is amplified, of course, by the exciting decision to cast a woman as Lucifer but to still refer to him using male pronouns, a subversive and concealed creature to the very core.

The unique gender dynamics also extend to the portrayal of the prosecuting attorneys, a pair of sexy, powerful lawyers who have finally met their match in the sexy, powerful Lucifer in a corset and stiletto boots. Meanwhile, their very modernness is at odds with the timelessness of the court; while testimony comes from biblical and historical figures alike, there is also a narrator character wandering through the piece snapping selfies with Lucifer and looking up 1899 boxing results on his phone.

It is, in short, an intriguing and complex play, one that uses fantasy while remaining grounded in realistic human emotion. My favorite scenes were the ones that found Lucifer interacting with evils that were not his own creation, from the mentally disabled child in the Siberian wilderness in 1212 BC whose very existence is dangerous to the brutally tortured young Swiss girls accused of witchcraft who find solace when they finally do find the Devil. It is in these moments of Lucifer's humanity and human cruelty that you consider what you really believe "the Devil" to be.

Star Performers

Victoria Rae Sook is brilliant as the Devil, of course, mysterious and disturbing while also deeply relatable. But there are also gripping and complex performances from many other cast members, most of whom play multiple roles in the historical tales. Of particular note are the confident and yet vulnerable lawyers Jane and Cate, played by Sarah Schoofs and Shannon McPhee, Justine S. Harrison as the naive and tormented witch Isobel and Lucifer's vicious wife and Bailey Newman as the pair of young, innocent children who become central elements of the Devil's plots.

Unfortunately, the cast as a whole seemed to suffer from being under-rehearsed, with actors stumbling over their lines and cutting each other off more often than can be easily forgotten. It is a shame, because this is a world in which language is deeply seductive, but that effect does still occasionally come through in a few masterfully delivered monologues. There are a few other quibbles I had with the piece, such as the significance of the Kenyan setting getting lost and the lost chance to emphasize the play-within-a-play device by allowing the actors of the court to remain onstage during flashbacks, but on the whole, this is a clever and polished production that I truly enjoyed.

So, would Lucifer returning to heaven be good or bad? It is a question that Barker leaves us with, along with considerations about the fundamental nature of humanity and how sexy Satan looks in a corset. Whether you're interested in fantasy or history, there's something in this play for you.

History of the Devil plays as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Remaining performances are on the 14th at 8pm and the 17th at 1:45pm at the 14th St Y.

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