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'Billy': A Devilish Take on Silverstein's Parable

July 13, 2001|PHILIP BRANDES

Amid the ongoing proliferation of budget-friendly solo performance pieces, there are only so many idolized portraits of historical figures or squirmingly intimate personal confessions you can take. Being neither, "The Devil and Billy Markham" at Theatre of NOTE is a refreshing change of pace.

It's a well-performed adaptation of a bawdy, satiric poem by writer-cartoonist Shel Silverstein that originally appeared in Playboy in 1979 and was later staged at the Lincoln Center in 1989.

The highly energetic Thom Cagle plays both titular characters and supplies the incidental voices in Silverstein's parable about Billy, a down-on-his-luck Nashville songwriter who accepts the Devil's challenge to risk his soul shooting for 13 on a roll of the dice.

Not the most finely tuned guitar string, mentally speaking, the drawling, beer-swilling Billy gets into deeper and deeper trouble as the prissy, cackling Devil keeps raising the stakes. Eventually, Billy has condemned not only himself, but his daughter, his mama and his one true love to the fiery pit.

How Billy tries to extricate himself and his loved ones constitutes a hilariously twisted tale of reversals of fortune and metaphysical conundrums, recounted with Silverstein's signature acerbic wit. Suffice it to say that any prostitution Billy may have endured in the music industry pales in comparison to his experiences in hell and heaven.

Director Tim Hanson has coaxed a brisk, tightly focused performance out of Cagle. The one-act staging never falters and doesn't outstay its welcome.


* "The Devil and Billy Markham," Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends July 28. $10. (323) 856-8611. Running time: 1 hour.

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