The Irish are fond of saying, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't."
Perhaps author C. S. Lewis had this in mind when he penned his epistolary classic, "The Screwtape Letters," a series of philosophical missives written by a darkly charismatic elder demon, Screwtape, advising his untested protégé, Wormwood, on matters of temptation to lure "the patients," also known as mortals, down the path to hell, into the fiery embrace of "our father, below."
In 2007 "The Screwtape Letters" was adapted for the stage by Max McLean with the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, and the production is enjoying a national tour this year, being warmly received from Los Angeles to Atlanta.
"The embers [for Lewis' work] are burning brighter than ever. He has a huge following," says McLean, who portrays Screwtape in the production.
In addition to "The Screwtape Letters," Lewis is known to popular audiences for "The Chronicles of Narnia," which has been a highly successful film trilogy.
McLean says he drew on the book's vivid personalities and clever storyline to create costumes and a set design that give the show its uniquely cheeky flavor.
One never thought a trip to hell could be so amusing.
The show opens with Screwtape, in his capacity as "Undersecretary for the Department of Temptation," addressing "the graduation banquet at Tempters' Training College for Young Devils."
After giving his charges a pep talk on the rudiments of spiritual warfare and the task set before them, Screwtape retires to his private study, a cozy, smoke-filled nook in the depths of the inferno, to correspond with Wormwood.
McLean, whose character is joined onstage by his personal secretary, Toadpipe, portrayed expressively by Karen Eleanor Wight (although she has so speaking parts), wears a smoking jacket reminiscent of Hugh Hefner and leads the audience through his wicked thought process while penning his letters to Wormwood.
McLean explains that he relied on images from popular culture, such as Al Pacino's turn as a disguised devil in the film "The Devil's Advocate," to fashion his interpretation of Screwtape.
"I thought of a man of style and taste. He had to be charming and seductive, like Noel Coward," he says, referring to the English dandy playwright.
The set design is a stark one, with Screwtape and Toadpipe languishing in the study with only a chair, and a wall that appears to be made out of skulls.
McLean volunteers that the skulls were inspired by the Catacombs, and by the notion of the "the hunt for the soul."
The most inventive aspect of the set is a "mailbox," which lights up when a "field report" from Wormwood arrives.
Although McLean's turn elicits chuckles, he says that the theme is of eternal importance, even for the faithless.
"I think everybody has an idea of good and evil built in," he theorizes. "We all try to anthropomorphize good and evil."
He explains that in today's trying times of war and economic uncertainty, people are looking inward and can find a glimmer of truth through seeing the world through Screwtape's perversion.
"I hope this challenges the thought process."
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