2014 Edmonton Fringe Festival Review: Screwtape

It's that time of year again, time for the batch of Fringe play reviews seen in the final weekend of the festival, the ones that there is a good chance you can NEVER SEE (unless it gets revived or plays a Fringe Fest in a diferent city).

Which brings us to "Screwtape", a one man show based on much of the text from CS Lewis' famous "The Screwtape Letters", the basic storyline of "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", and actually nothing at all from the James Forsyth play "Dear Wormwood" which was renamed "Screwtape". For one, this is a one man show: John Huston plays the title character and in fact doesn't play any other characters. For a little over an hour, Screwtape is the only person we see and hear.

It starts out with Screwtape, former headmaster of the Academy of Demonology in Hell, practising a commencement address to the latest class of graduates in which he passes along some of his wit and wisdom learned over the years. As a brief aside, the play doesn't give you any slow introductions or any backgrounder, it bursts full speed into Screwtape's speech. I had no problem with this, but I am told by others who aren't as familiar with the works as I was (indeed, had no idea what The Screwtape Letters were) that the play went a little too fast into it and cost a potential fan who was left utterly confused and perplexed as to what was taking place on stage. Your mileage may vary. There's a wonderful little nod to modernity as Screwtape is apparently using Google Glass 9.0 to read his speech and communicate by telephone with Wormwood. There are a few other nods to modernity, mostly more new villains for Screwtape to reference, which don't go nearly as well. There's an iPad joke in there, because of course there's gotta be an iPad joke.

The blending of the two tonally different Screwtape books is done basically by going back and forth between Screwtape's two missions: to dictate to Toadpipe (stage left) his upcoming speech, and to answer calls for help from his nephew Wormwood, a hapless recent graduate from the Academy and aspiring young Tempter. Wormwood has been assigned his first "patient", a aspiring Christian to match up with. Unfortunately, Wormwood doesn't seem to know a lot: his uncle Screwtape blames the new Headmaster Slubgog for letting school standards slide (it goes without saying, if he talked at all about how much better the town had been while he was mayor I was prepared to storm out of the building). As a result, Screwtape has to provide some live coaching to Wormwood about how to corrupt a man's heart, the importance of patience, and some philosophical thoughts about God's motivations (which gets Screwtape in some minor trouble on account of blashphemy). Ironicly, while "The Screwtape Letters" is by far the better work, it's the speech based on "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" which works the best for the play; not that the distinction is still very much, the script wisely keeps the text almost entirely un-altered from the original. Peter Jackson, please pick up the white courtesy phone.

Huston plays Screwtape actually quite a lot like he was the demonic temptation version of Sir Humphrey: the British accent possibly helps. Screwtape occasionally gets very very posh and droll, much like Sir Humphrey; he occasionally gets very upset about something, raises his British voice, and eloquently yet aggressively makes his case before returning to his demeanour, much like Sir Humphrey; and whenever he is speaking about "Our Father Below" (Satan, of course) he gets an almost mock deferential pose, almost like Sir Humphrey when dealing with Sir Arnold or defending the civil service. As a general rule, this works well: Screwtape does get a little upset and animated a little more than he should for the characterization of Hell as a runaway bureaucracy, but generally the Humphrey-ness of the character leaps back into the forefront and the portrayal calms down. The clinical matter-of-fact attitude towards turning a human soul into a demon's plaything and/or supper is more chilling than a more vicious portrayal, and I think a lot of the more aggressive tone scenes hurts more than it helps. The relentless inhumanity of the whole endeavour is what keeps us wondering when Satan might come with a scheme to tempt *us*. It's also why the scene where Screwtape temporarily gets so excited he turns into a giant centipede (and verbalizes that he does so) doesn't work very well, turning the serious moments of the "third act" into a bit too farcial an experience. It's not the strongest part of the book either, and it doesn't translate from the page to the stage very well at all.

I make a reference earlier, by the way, to the "third act". This also isn't entirely how the work is structured, as Screwtape (for obvious reasons) plays more like just a regular speech would. Touching on various topics and referencing earlier statements, there isn't much of a "story" here other than the basic summary that the Wormwood parts of the play serve as the story of Patient's life. Like us, Patient doesn't have a life story that always fits within a story structure: he finds love, has good and bad things happen in his life, spends time with people who may lead him astray, feels down and seeks guidance, but not always having a climax or a denoument. The climax of the story, as it happens, is more the interplay between Screwtape and Wormwood near the end of Patient's life: Screwtape offers help to his kindred, but fitting his place in the (under)world he isn't afraid to revoke it or promise swift retribution in return for a variety of wrongs both real and imagined. In the end, Patient's death comes a little bit out of nowhere: without the buildup of the war that occurs in the book, it just looks like a regular mostly unexpected out-of-somewhere-close-to-nowhere death. Again, this is just like the kind you or I would have and while it scores points for realism, it does take away a bit of the tension whether or not Patient will become Christian or not. Though it's CS Lewis, so you probably shouldn't be too surprised by the answer.

Final word: An excellent adaptation of the CS Lewis material, marred only slightly by bringing the story more into our own time.

(for more reviews of the 2014 Edmonton Fringe, click here)