‘The Devil in His Own Words’ at Taffety Punk Theatre Company

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The Devil Made Me Do It: An Evening with the Antichrist                                              

A dying man, said to be, among others, Voltaire, Machiavelli, or an anonymous Irishman, is exhorted by a priest to renounce Satan. “Now, now, my good man,” he replies. “[T]his is no time to be making enemies.”

Marcus Kyd as The Devil. Photo by Photo by Lise Bruneau.
Marcus Kyd as The Devil. Photo by Photo by Lise Bruneau.

In 2006, the late President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, referred to the smell of sulphur which lingered after the appearance of President George W. Bush at the U.N. A Ukrainian Orthodox leader recently suggested that Vladimir Putin is being influenced by the Devil.The religious group Satanic Temple recently announced that its first chapter house will be located in Detroit. The Devil is perpetually, as they say, relevant.

Marcus Kyd, Artistic Director of Taffety Punk, became intrigued by the character of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, while reading it in a bar in Baltimore. Taffety Punk is marking its 10-year anniversary with a new production of its very first show, The Devil in His Own Words, which emerged from that moment of inspiration.

There is no end of fun to be had in writing about the Devil, and Marcus Kyd finds it all. From the hair-raising “Mysterious Strangerof Mark Twain, to the versatile Woland in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, to the melancholy and furious Lucifer of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Drama of Exile,, Marcus Kyd displays with tremendous flair the many moods of the Arch-Fiend as he struggles with his hapless victims.

And what a variety of victims there are! There are struggling artists (“Enoch Soames” by Max Beerbohm, and “The Painter’s Bargain” by William Makepeace Thackeray); the editor of an important literary journal (The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov); a young shipwright (“Captain Murderer and the Devil’s Bargain” by Charles Dickens) and of course those perennial favorites Adam and Eve (Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained”); (“A Drama of Exile”) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and the Book of Genesis.

Extraordinary stage images and innovative use of music and sound establish the world of the play. Kyd travels through time in a millisecond, portraying a cynical Satan bullying a bumbling inferior devil, Pug (The Devil is an Ass, by Ben Jonson) one moment, and the terrifyingly cold Philipp Traum (The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain) the next.

The Devil in His Own Words is not without exhilarating modern sequences. Sometimes Kyd harangues the audience like a stand-up comic in a small, smoky club. At other times, he barks into a red phone like a sports agent.

A special note on “Paradise Lost”–it was viewed as the greatest long poem of its day, and its richness and complexity are legendary. Its reputation has fluctuated over the years, and its effect was sometimes polarizing. Harold Bloom referred to Milton as “the great Inhibitor, the Sphinx who strangles even strong imaginations in their cradles.” (“Milton and the Critics: The Reception of ‘Paradise Lost’” by Sophie Read. Kyd is particularly to be commended for the depth of his interpretation of this notoriously difficult work. The Devil in His Own Words is not only an entertaining tour-de-force, but a serious investigation into the nature and causes of evil.

“There is an illusion of control that the Devil grasps at” Kyd explains, “but ultimately, he is cursed. He’s stuck. We try to deal with what it means to be cursed for all eternity. I can’t resolve this play with a nice ending…you can’t take the Devil out of Hell.” And honestly, why would you want to?

Lise Bruneau does remarkable work as director. Kyd’s acting is spectacular, and he is particularly effective when delivering complicated verse in an entertaining, visceral way. Paper Bag, as God, gives a stunning performance, making the ultimate sacrifice so the show can go on.

Original Music by Kathy Cashel and Michelle Rush is lovely and haunting.  Cashel (Music and Sound Design) and Rush (Music) weave an intricate tapestry of sound–surprising, original, and sometimes deeply moving. Other voices are Lise Bruneau, Michael John Casey, Maia DeSanti, and Melora Kordos.

Kathleen Chadwick (Set), Daniel Flint (Scenic Manifestation) and Jenn Sheetz (Set co-designer, Properties master) are to be congratulated for their adaptable and imaginative creations. The curtain at the back of the stage is used to create a silhouette, and the ladder (reminiscent of the Star-Keeper’s ladder in Carousel) adds levels which enhance the action. Mannequins are used very successfully as characters, and there are, among other stage elements, a grave, a grocery cart, and two dolls representing Adam and Eve.

Lighting Designer Chris Curtis’ work is evocative and powerful. Scott Hammar’s costumes are perfection; Lucifer is sometimes elegant, sometimes playful, but always, as one would imagine, a la mode.

These authors, among others, are also featured in the text: Lord Byron, Edward P. Jones, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Maxim Gorky.

Marcus Kyd as The Devil. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Marcus Kyd as The Devil. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

“Demons do not exist any more than gods do, being only the products of the psychic activity of man,” said Sigmund Freud. Really? How can you be so sure? Come to The Devil in His Own Words, and find out. After all, Someone may be watching.

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist”. –Charles Baudelaire.

Running Time:  90 minutes, with no intermission.

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The Devil in His Own Words plays through October 4, 2014 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006, or purchase them online.

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She is a playwright and director. An early draft of her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied English at Barnard, and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time Real Estate Editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.