(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
A theater adaptation of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters (1942), a book written from the perspective of a senior demon teaching a neophyte demon how to tempt a human, is touring the United States. Max McLean, who directed and adapted the play along with Jeff Fiske, spoke Thursday with The Christian Post about what it's like to play Screwtape on stage, and how last week's shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., has influenced his performance.
McLean said he was "blown away by" The Screwtape Letters the first time he read it in his early 20s, "because I didn't think of devils in a personal way and [Lewis] made it so real. I found it to be very profound."
Fiske first approached McLean with the idea for the play, telling him that he would make a really good Screwtape.
"I don't know if that was a compliment or not," McLean joked, but was intrigued by the idea.
Screwtape's apprentice, Wormwood, who is also his nephew, is never seen in the play. Rather, the audience watches Screwtape as he reads letters from Wormwood detailing his progress at tempting his "patient."
Screwtape dictates letters to Wormwood excoriating him for his simple-minded understanding of human nature: "Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one -- the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts." "Moderated religion is better than no religion." "It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out."
Screwtape's scribe in the play is Toadpipe -- a character briefly mentioned in the book that has an expanded role in the play. Whereas McLean's Screwtape performance comes mostly through his deep, bellowing voice, Toadpipe's performance, by Marissa Molnar for the first time Thursday, is, with the exception of some hissing and guttural noises, all physical. Slithering across the stage, Toadpipe's role is more like an interpretive dance, occasionally morphing into a physical illustration of Screwtape's words.
The play does not change any of Lewis' words from the book, but it does update the text through some hand motions, music and props. Madonna's pop hit "Material Girl" takes on a new edge when the demon Screwtape is seen appreciating its lyrics.
There are many laughs throughout the play. McLean describes them as "uncomfortable laughs."
"Most of the humor emerges because of the wit and the irony that come from holding a mirror to human nature," McLean said. ... "I've had many people say they laughed a lot during the show then the next morning they realized why they were laughing and they didn't laugh as much, because ... the thing is, humor is a mirror to life too, we laugh at things that are real."
The play is not just for Christians, McLean explained. Non-Christians also appreciate it, because, "the play is about truth. Lewis ... didn't negotiate reality, and most people that understand real life would recognize the experiences that Lewis is writing about in The Screwtape Letters as being real, as being true. That really bears witness."
In stage acting, McLean explained, performers adapt to the audiences.
"You want to be in the moment, and the moment is obviously influenced by the audience, what they bring, they come from their own worlds, whatever issues they have, they bring an energy that really does connect."
McLean has noticed a difference in his performance since last week's shooting in Newtown, Conn. "I've felt it in my performance," he said, particularly in the last scene in which the audience finds out if Wormwood is successful in his mission.
As an added bonus, McLean stays on stage after the performance to interact with the audience and answer questions.
"I didn't want you to go home tonight thinking I'm really Screwtape," he joked.
The play is produced by Fellowship for the Performing Arts, an organization founded by McLean aimed at producing theater from a Christian worldview for a diverse audience. It is currently working on a play based upon Lewis' The Great Divorce, which will premiere next year.
The Screwtape Letters tour is currently in Washington, D.C., until Jan. 6. Check out its website, www.screwtapeonstage.com, to see when it will be in a theater near you.