“Oh, Hell” | R-S Theatrics

Oh-HellMaybe this is a Christmas show in a way because Satan does see you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake.

Oh-Hell 500

R-S Theatrics has chosen an unusual program for the holiday season: Two one-act plays about Satan, “Bobby Gould in Hell” (David Mamet) and “The Devil and Billy Markham” (Shel Silverstein). This is a welcome relief from Nutcrackers, elves, and the like. Both are comedies, but while their styles are quite different from each other, they are thematically linked.

Christina Rios, Artistic Director of (and the “R” in) R-S, directs the Mamet play which features Bobby Gould (Phil Leveling) whom Mamet fans will remember from “Speed-the-Plow” and the lesser known “The Old Neighborhood.” Here, Bobby finds himself in an office with a fastidiously dressed, prissy assistant of some sort (Mark Kelley) who simply stares at him while methodically eating candies from a dish on a shabby desk. The two don’t talk for what seems like an uncomfortable period of time, but then all hell breaks loose when the “Boss” (B. Weller) shows up. He has been interrupted while fishing (perhaps a perversion of “fishers of men,” but he is carrying a rod and wearing fly fishing garb), and he’s not too happy about it. It’s time for movie producer Bobby to make the ultimate pitch: He has to try and save his soul because in life, he wasn’t a nice man.

In fact, these one-on-one meetings are nothing new to him. “Speed-the-Plow” deals with him being approached by an old friend, Charlie Fox, who is desperate to sell the film rights he has acquired to what he thinks is a hot property. Charlie knows you only get one shot in Hollywood, and he has to be as persuasive as possible, and sitting opposite the Devil, so does Bobby. When Satan sits down, we can see the red and orange socks that symbolize his office. Liz Henning has the costume credit for both plays.

The assistant has a ledger and some files that comprise the record of Bobby’s life. In fact, maybe this is a Christmas show in a way because Satan does see you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, and he certainly knows if you’ve been bad or good. Bobby, in a shiny purple shirt and big gold chain, is forced to listen to the Devil’s circular arguments and can’t seem to defend himself, at least not at first. Three times, he becomes frustrated and tries to leave, but turns back each time when he and we see the hell fires (flashing lights) and hear the cries and wails of the damned. Kelley also has the sound design credit for both shows. Three doors hanging askew on Kyra Bishop’s set (she, too, has a double design credit) symbolize his attempts, and reinforce the many mythical meanings of the number three, e.g., the Holy Trinity, the Holy Family, and the number of Peter’s denials of Christ among them.

Satan seems obsessed with one incident in Bobby’s past when he had a one-night stand with a young woman, Glenna (Rachel Tibbetts) whom he treated shabbily, even threatening to molest her with a small kitchen appliance. That last thing seems to gall the Devil particularly. Bobby insists the situation wasn’t like the way it is now being portrayed, so Glenna is brought to Hell to tell her side of the story. And what a piece of work she is! By the time she’s finished, the Devil may have changed sides or has he? What will happen to Bobby Gould’s soul, or, since he worked in Hollywood, did he lose it a long time ago?

This is a clever play, but under Rios’ oddly deliberate direction, it moves too slowly. Glenna (note the name which calls to mind the fast-talking Richie Russo from Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross) should be talking much faster. She’s annoying, but she’s not annoying enough for us to believe that she could beat the Devil. Kelley, a gifted comedian, manages to work a lot of business into the quiet young man who takes pride in his work. Leveling is quite good as Bobby and Weller is a suitably exasperated Satan, but despite everyone’s best efforts, the production never quite gels.

We return from intermission to meet Billy Markham through a janitor with an Elvis patch on his ripped jeans, who is mopping up in a Nashville bar. Robert Ashton directed this one-man show in which the character, known as the Storyteller (GP Hunsaker) holds the stage for around 70 minutes, telling us the tale of Billy, a blues guitarist who has failed to make it big in Nashville, and his dealings with the Devil. Published in Playboy magazine in 1979, it was first performed as a companion piece with “Bobby Gould” in 1989. It’s a real workout for an actor who has to memorize more than an hour’s worth of verse to narrate five scenes and a coda from Billy’s dealings with the Devil.

Billy is none too bright because in the first scene, he rolls the dice with the Prince of Darkness and finds that they are not only blank (made from the bones of Jesus, we’re told) but he is expected to come up 13. Naturally he doesn’t, and off to hell he goes to roast on a spit with all sorts of nasty things happening to him and the Devil loving it all until he gets bored and gives Billy another shot: Roll the dice again and get a chance to go free, but the wager is required to be the souls of the woman he loves, his baby girl and his mother who become his hostages to fortune. Of course, Billy takes the gamble, but the whole bunch of them end up in the hot place with Grandma and the baby both wailing as they’re tortured, and the love of his life. . . . well, let’s just say she thought of a way around the problem. Billy himself has found a loophole, but he’s unhappy without his loved ones, so he retrieves them, only to be stopped by his nemesis again. The last test is a pool game in which Old Scratch scratches, so Billy wins the day, but nothing is so simple as it may seem.

The whole piece is written in rhyme which might, as has been theorized about the ancient poets in the oral tradition, help the storyteller memorize the piece, but on preview night, it didn’t help Hunsaker much. He stumbled way too many times, but that will probably be corrected over the run. He also has the kind of charisma that keeps us engaged with the storyteller, no matter what he’s doing or for whom he is speaking. There are some aspects of the story that are reminiscent of Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which features a boy named Johnny in a fiddle competition for his soul, but both it and the play were published the same year, so it’s hard to say if there is anything other than coincidence on either side.

There are also hints of the legend of blues guitarist Robert Johnson, a real life musician, who claimed he sold his soul to the Devil for success, but again, it’s hard to tell whether Silverstein was using other material as influence or just inspiration. And, “The Devil and Billy Markham” is, of course, a riff on “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” although other than their titles and arguing for a man’s soul, the two pieces have little in common. In any event, it’s fun to watch Hunsaker go through his paces, and it will be more so when he fully learns the part. | Andrea Braun

“Oh, Hell” is presented by R-S Theatrics through Dec. 15. You may visit the website for more information, r-stheatrics.com. You are encouraged to bring canned and boxed foods and mixes and/or grocery story gift cards or just a personal check to support WOW, a program through Maplewood-Richmond Heights Schools to combat hunger among their less fortunate students.

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