04 June 2010

Screwtape Letters on Stage; or, How Much Sin is Too Much?

This past Sunday, G and I saw a dramatic performance of The Screwtape Letters in Philadelphia. It was at The Lantern Theatre, the same venue where I saw Henry IV a few months ago (and interviewed the director).

This was a one-man show; well, sort of. Anthony Lawton adapted the text for performance and played Screwtape. However, he took the tiny role of Toadpipe, Screwtape’s secretary, and developed it into an extensive non-speaking role (with one short speech directly from Lewis’s text). He chose to cast this as a woman (the super-sexy-secretary type) and turned her part into a major factor in the dramatic interpretation of Lewis's theology.

Lawton's performance was dazzlingly brilliant; his adaptation ingenious. I do not want anything that I say next to take away from the mind-blowing power of this performance. It was professional and just absolutely riveting. INTENSE is the word for it.

Here's how the adaptation worked. Screwtape would read one of his letters to Wormwood outloud. Then Toadpipe would enter in her capacity as secretary to deliver another letter from Wormwood. And Screwtape and Toadpipe would dance. And each dance was expressing something about the text of the letter that had gone before or (even more cleverly) that would come after. These dances grew in intensity in each interlude.

Lawton wrote an introductory piece to explain his interpretation/adaptation. As he reads it, C.S. Lewis is claiming that the motivating principle of Heaven is Love--the giving of oneself for another, the mutual cooperation without desire for gain--and that Hell cannot understand this principle. The motivating principle of Hell, on the other hand, is Competition in the worst sense. It is the overwhelming, consuming passion to get something out of the other person, to destroy and devour the other. And the dances showed this desire to defeat, in combination with sexual tension, admirably.

First of all, the acting was superb. Lawton and his so-star Kim Carson are both top notch. His reading inflections were perfect at all times, his body language a whole story of itself. The silent scenes, acted to well-chosen music, were jam packed with meaning. Every gesture was crisp and perfectly timed. Every facial muscle was controlled, burning with intensity of expression. Their faces, their bodies, their eyes and fingers, their feet to the music -- all were honed to a height of dramatic perfection.

Then the two actors showed remarkable athleticism. The fight scenes were among some of the best choreography I've seen. The dances were fast paced and powerful. Those two were in mad crazy good shape and used it, too. Whew!

There was a multi-media aspect, too. There was a huge flat screen behind Screwtape's desk, and on it would appear paintings (each horrifically appropriate to the sin or temptation in question), photographs (of the Patient and his mother, for example), and words (bullet points and notable phrases, as in a good powerpoint lecture). Admirably done!

So then what's the problem? Well, maybe it's not a problem, but it was awfully hard to take. These two actors did not shy away from a full-frontal exposure of sin. The idea is that only God can create from nothing: the devil can only twist and pervert what is good for his purposes. So Lawton decided to show perversion in its full perverseness, to (I suppose) sicken us and make us retch at the disgust of hell. The dances got progressively dirtier, until Toadpipe basically did a stripper dance, only she didn't remove any clothes (just kept on the extremely skimpy and tight suit she was wearing). She writhed and waggled, holding nothing back. They tapdanced, then fought through a Matrix-inspired number, then ate and drank fire (a human soul), then tangoed at the edge of anger, then stripped and whipped into a sexual and violent frenzy. Yikes! As one reviewer put it: "Fair warning: some of the imagery in the play can be a little unsettling. But that’s sin, baby."

Yes, that's sin. But I couldn't help wondering if it was all a cover-up for a chance to do some dirty dancing under the excuse of a Christian moral? Like: "Sin is really, really bad. It's unbelievably awful. Let me show you just how awful it is...." Now, to be fair, the point was that it all falls apart. That it is all shallow and meaningless -- and that Christianity offers real, deep, profound, full-bodied pleasure. OK. I get that. But I still had to see nude pictures, inappropriate dancing, and other things I'm not even going to describe here. So that does make me wonder.

I'm hoping to interview Mr. Lawton for the "Where Are We Now" series, so perhaps he can shed some light on this subject. Or pour fire on it, then eat the thing whole!!!


Annelise Holwerda said...

Wow! This looks to be an astounding piece, both of theatre and of Christian expression- that is, the illumination of Christ.

I agree that this small performance issue becomes a genuinely big deal, because of the overriding way in which it impacts on the audience. This is an important level of consideration, of course! Even when Christians value 'good art' as being God's in its own right. So was it acceptable? Even necessary, for that which was good in the theatre? A 'bearable' concession? I don't know. For me, this is a performance I would love to see, but may have been hesitant to as well.

Either way, Lewis himself opens the desired alternative. I do agree well with Lawton's reading, but I also think that C. S. Lewis was a master of expressing the awful weight of selfish rebellion while avoiding the gratuitous (even accidental- in both senses) enjoyment of its exterior. After all, the deceit of the senses is central to this argument, and there is an irony in enjoying it (even for comparitive purposes) theatrically.

I see the method in Lawton's over-the-top experiential stench, putting one most clearly in mind of the place where experience and its consequence collide. Lewis works similarly with his diabolical genre, only I think much less 'seriously'. But there is something to be learnt from a character such as Weston, for example: he spirals into a compelling incarnation of the rot he is lost inside, but Lewis' depiction wants for none of the carnal fascination it avoids. If anything, this skill far more impacting, more lucid.

And think of the Chronicles! Even for children, very deep issues of personal response to Aslan- including the decaying consequence of self-love- are explored with no superficial moralising, nor on the other hand any 'enjoyment' of that sin at all. It's very attractive. The deceit of sense and self are honestly understood, but they are never borrowed from for pure literary effect. The intimacy of goodness is displayed too well, for that.

The problem remaining is that this is much easier in good writing. Lewis has essentially got inside the inside of characters' sin, yet theatre is largely based in externals. Atmosphere and symbol may still represent and/or portray the interior nature of a subject, but the visual immediacy of the literal is more strongly trodden in theatrical technique. Perhaps a transposition of the written potential could turn to problem into something innovative and brilliant :)

P.S. I have been reading all your interviews; they are fascinating and helpful, but I haven't had time yet to comment! Apologies forthe silent audience. I am really enjoying, in fact.

Rosie Perera said...

Great write-up, and great photos (did you take those?)!

I'm passing this post along to my friend Ron Reed who is the founding artistic director of Pacific Theatre in Vancouver, as it sounds like a play they might want to put on sometime.

fred putnam said...

Thanks for this review. We saw this at the PA Shakespeare Festival. It was a stunningly brilliant portrayal of Lewis's "bureaucratic Hell".

We (my wife, daughter, a friend, and I) noticed that all of the dances except Toadpipe's bump-and-grind began innocuously and descended into contests that became increasingly more bitter and vindictive. Were they offensive? They were certainly startling, especially when the first one changed from dance to fight. But not offensive, once we figured out how Tony Lawton was using them.

I would most definitely see it again, and recommend it to (carefully chosen) friends.

Thanks again.


Iambic Admonit said...

Fred: Well said. I'm glad that you liked it, and that you understood the purpose of the dancing fully enough to appreciate it without being offended. And I agree; recommend it to "carefully chosen" friends!!

Iambic Admonit said...

Oh, Rosie, I never answered your question. No, I didn't take those photos; I stole them from Tony's facebook page! (but asked him if it was OK, and also credited the photographer in Tony's interview).