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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

'History of the Devil': Puts Spin on Satan's Tale

Rude Guerrilla production explores playwright Clive Barker's view of the fallen angel.

October 16, 2000|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's an old story. The angel Lucifer is a bad boy, and gets kicked out of heaven by the boss. He settles on Earth and establishes his version of paradise, but it's pretty raunchy and evil. He's devious and lecherous and, well, devilish. But then he decides he's bored with it all, and files a lawsuit for forgiveness and a chance to return to heaven.

That's the gospel according to playwright-novelist Clive Barker in his early surreal black comedy "The History of the Devil," on stage at Rude Guerrilla's Empire Theater in Santa Ana. The play was originally produced in the early 1980s with Barker's avant-garde London theater group the Dog Company. Subtitled "Scenes From a Pretended Life," the play, even at three short hours, is an interesting and often amusing look at one writer's image of Satan, one of the pseudonyms Lucifer adopted after his banishment.

Set as a rather ordinary trial--judge, prosecutors, defense attorney, witnesses and all--it's enlivened by interesting vignettes, described by witnesses, as to Lucifer's goodness, gentleness and desire for peace and happiness. Of course, the vignettes actually tell another story, but Lucifer really tries hard and almost logically to twist the facts.

The style of the play recalls an era of playwriting even earlier than the '80s. It looks more like the '60s most of the time, but this production breathes life into it with fine, taut direction by Dave Barton, and a large, capable company sparked by some excellent performances that indicate not only an understanding of Barker's work, but a real affection for it.

The most necessary, and effortless, spark is provided by Jay Fraley, whose sense of humor and detail gives Lucifer a definite charm, and of course the Devil is charming, as we all know. Fraley's light touch is exactly what the play needs, and his few darker moments are true to Barker's writing.

His male sidekick Verrier, in true Barker style, is played by Cynthia Ryanen with such a slimy, evil, delicious subtext that even his desperate affection for Lucifer is more fun than frightening, and Sean Cox's Jesus Christ (among other roles) is notable for his sincerity amid the role's goofiness and camp.

Susan E. Taylor is marvelous as a sure, hard-edged lesbian prosecuting attorney, and Paulette Kendall is solid as her very unsure associate prosecutor, who succumbs more than she really should to Lucifer's slithering appeal. As Sam Kyle, Lucifer's personally chosen defense counsel, Bryan Jennings has a strong sense of his character's confusion and growing fear that works very nicely, and David Cramer's stuffy Judge Popper has some very funny moments.

In support, in a cast that frequently doubles in various roles, Grace Nassar stands out as a retarded Russian peasant girl raped and killed by Lucifer on his arrival down here, and as the Jewish wife of a prize-ring champion who just barely triumphs over Lucifer's contender.

The play's only flaw is its insistence that Lucifer's most dastardly deed was the last 100 years. The Devil can't be forgiven for earlier mistakes either, but Barker makes sure his 1980s audience would be roped in by his philosophy, when Lucifer's wife testifies that he told her that he was going to start a war that would destroy humanity, and it would be called the 20th century.

"The History of the Devil," Empire Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 12. $15. (714) 547-4688. Running time: 3 hours.

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