Monday, June 17, 2013

The Screwtape Letters—Newmark Theatre—downtown Portland, OR

The World, the Flesh and the Devil”

This production is produced by The Fellowship for the Performing Arts and is currently on tour through the U.S.  It is by C.S. Lewis and adapted for the stage by Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske and directed by McLean.  For further information on this show and its tour, go to or call 212-582-2920.

C.S. Lewis was a prolific writer and the author of, perhaps, his most famous stories,  the fantasy world of Narnia.  He was great friends with another famous fantasy writer, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings series.  He was a great intellectual and a confirmed skeptic as to the existence of God, early in his life.  But he later became one of the devout  champions of the Christian religion.  Part of his life was told in the novel, stage and eventually, film of Shadowlands, with Anthony Hopkins as the author and Edward Hardwick as his brother.

This production is essentially a 90 minute monologue.  It concerns the efforts of one of Satan’s chief supporters, Screwtape (Brent Harris) instructing his nephew, Wormwood, through a series of letters, the fine art of corrupting these “hairless bipeds,” called humans.  On board to do his bidding is his faithful minion, Toadpipe (Tamala Bakkensen), who skulks about the stage with guttural grunts as communication.

It seems that his nephew, being only a young demon, is missing the finer points of manipulating the food on his plate.  It is a feast better digested, if it is played with a bit.  In a way, Man must be the architect of his own demise into the hell fires, but not be aware of it.  One must nudge them away from the Light.  Man must be massaged gently into a state of “contented worldliness,” and, thus, ripe for picking in Satan’s orchard.

The person who is a seeker is a better candidate for the brimstone highway than to a blind pupil.  This individual will take things in moderation, including religion, and thus be somewhat a critic of all things and a sincere believer in none.  Reality is the Devil’s companion because it exposes the corruption in the world.  Faith is the enemy because it espouses a belief in something without questioning or asking for proof.  Fanatics in leaders, especially in churches, politics and media stars are a great source of inspiration for corruption.  Look at Hitler or Jim Jones and see the converts to the Darkness they created.

Man’s own vanity and self-love are the best weapons the devil has, as they are the tools of his own destruction.  The challenge is, not so much to led souls astray, but have them get on the broken path of their own choosing.  Even God’s gift of Free Will can work in Satan’s favor.  As I said, best to play with your food before you devour it. 

But Wormwood seems to be failing in his mission, which leads to a sort of nervous breakdown of Screwtape.  In the end, the strains of “Amazing Grace” can be heard and uncle and nephew might have to admit to the loss of a battle.  But the war is yet to be decided, as Screwtape and Toadpipe look hungrily toward the audience.

This is a play of words and pretty high-brow words, at that.  It would be best to read these intellectual thoughts and ponder them.  By having them recited, and beautifully, too, there is probably a lot you will miss, because there are so many aspects to his logic, that one’s mind can only process so much at a viewing.  The above paragraphs of mine are what I gleaned, but there was so much more besides.  If the purpose was just to get you thinking, it accomplished that goal with me. 

But, that being said, this was quite an extraordinary production!  The acting by Harris of Screwtape was exceptional.  His use of modulating his voice, his calculated movements, his outrageous rages and affective humor were all brilliantly conceived and executed.  And his build toward madness himself was like a slow boil in a pressure cooker.  You knew it was going to explode and let the collateral damage be damned (preferably, by their accounts).

And my eyes were consistently on Bakkensen as Toadpipe.  Granted her make-up and costuming (beautifully rendered by Michael Bevins) was mesmerizing, but she also embodied that character to the nth degree.  Her Gollum-like movements, somewhere between a lizard and a vulture, were something out of a nightmare.  And with her guttural grunts, groans and beasty mutterings, as well as her engaging expressions, one knew exactly what she was feeling.  Also, an exceptional performance and a great addition to the production.

And one cannot help but notice the superb Set (Cameron Anderson) and Lighting (Jesse Klug) and Sound (John Gromada) that added greatly to the effectiveness of the show.  The background of skulls and bones piled upon each other, the raked stage, the ladder to their “mailbox,” the way the lights played on these elements, setting the mood and the beautiful make-up/costuming by Bevins, et. al., created a superior stage atmosphere.  And, McLean, the creator of the show, is to be applauded for his visceral vision.

I recommend this show but it might be too intense for young children.  I would seek out their website and see it at some point on their tour.  If you do choose to attend it, tell them Dennis sent you.

For another perspective, go to Greg’s blog at

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