When the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” comes on the pre-show soundtrack, it’s a tipoff that C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is going to be a diabolically delightful evening of theater and infernally amusing. The script is deftly adapted for the stage by Max McLean (who also directs) and Jeffrey Fiske from Lewis’ popular epistolary novel wherein the moral universe is turned upside down: God is “The Enemy” and the Devil-in-chief is “Our Father.”
The Screwtape Letters is obliquely a story about the vicissitudes of faith and the joke is that it’s set in Hell, where Screwtape is a mid-level devil who trains youthful lucifers. His nephew Wormwood is currently on Earth, assigned to a human known as the Patient. During the course of the play, Screwtape writes a series of exhortations to Wormwood about how to do the Devil’s work properly so that the Patient will be duly damned. “Remember you are there to fuddle him,” says Screwtape. “Do not allow any temporary excitement to distract you from the real business of undermining faith and preventing the formation of virtues.”
As played in dapper finery by Brent Harris, Screwtape is a bewitching mix of cheeky smirks, vain guile, and comedic bile. (Whenever he pronounces his own name, he conspicuously pops the p. But he can’t say the word love without gagging.) He is assisted by a scaley-crawly-squawky underling named Toadpipe, a secretary and nonverbal scene partner, played by Anna Reichert, alternating with Tamala Bakkensen. (When Screwtape mentions the word prayer, Toadpipe vomits.)
Last seen in DC in 2012, The Screwtape Letters is one of several touring productions by the Fellowship for Performing Arts that take artful theatrical flight from articles of Christian faith. Other FPA shows I’ve seen and greatly admired include Martin Luther on Trial and C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert. They are all distinguished by top-level acting, directing, and design and a unique knack for eliciting spiritual self-reflection sheerly though ingeniously engaging entertainment, with nary a preachment in sight.
The set is a raked stage of hot-red stone pointing to a twisted stairway that leads earthward. Now and then Toadpipe clambers up it to a mailbox, depositing and collecting the uncle-nephew correspondence to great whooshes of hell roar and epic light effects. Screwtape’s office is spartan: There is a comfortable red leather chair and footstool, a writing table, not much else. But the back wall is a catacomb, an eerie frieze of human skulls and bones that are all that’s left after devils feast on savory banquets of unsaved souls.
Part of the enormous pleasure of watching The Screwtape Letters is in following along with and figuring out its inverted values scheme. Here virtue is evil and virtue’s absence is devoutly to be desired. When the Patient becomes a Christian, that’s a disaster. When the Patient lapses, that’s a reprieve, another chance for a win for Wormwood. During a talkback opening night, McLean referred to The Screwtape Letters as a “reverse devotional.” Lewis himself called it “diabolical ventriloquism.” Even as we are treated to a terrific stage spectacle full of amazing sounds and visual fury and hilariously scenery-chewing performances, we are teased to translate backward what we hear and find a place for its meaning in our minds.
For instance, Screwtape urges Wormwood to keep the Patient absorbed in so-called real life. This is because humans “find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes.”
And theological points slip in obversely, as when Screwtape warns, “We must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created.”
Music functions cleverly. There’s a funny scene when Screwtape holds up a coffee-table Madonna biography and her pop anthem “Material Girl” plays. And important plot points in the Patient’s story are underscored by the hymns “Amazing Grace” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Though The Screwtape Letters was published more than 75 years ago, it almost sounds like it could have been written yesterday. For instance, at one point Screwtape explains how devils in “the Lowerarchy” have produced what humans think of as “sexual ‘taste.’… This they do by working through the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type.”
Then, with Toadpipe miming the different types of ideal female he describes, Screwtape explains how his cronies have manipulated male sexual taste:
At one time we have directed it to the statuesque and aristocratic type of beauty, mixing men’s vanity with their desires…. At another, we have selected an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing, so that folly and cowardice, and all the general falseness
and littleness of mind which go with them, shall be at a premium…. we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female’s chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results)…. We have engineered a great increase in the license which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude)…. it is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be. Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being “frank” and “healthy” and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist.
At that, the opening-night audience broke out in applause.
The Screwtape Letters plays only through Sunday evening February 3, and shows are selling out.
Adapted for the stage by Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske
Directed by Max McLean
His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape: Brent Harris
Toadpipe: Tamala Bakkensen, Anna Reichert
Scenic Design: Cameron Anderson
Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada
Lighting Design: Jesse Klug
Costume Design: Michael Bevins
Executive Producer: Ken Denison
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters plays through February 3, 2019, at Fellowship for Performing Arts performing at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the Shakespeare Theatre Company Box Office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.