It’s easy to crack jokes as you head to a play about the devil at Catholic University. “Hey, maybe there’ll be an audience-participation exorcism!” Or, “Passion plays: not just for Easter anymore!”
You could crack those jokes, but as soon as you pass by the Little Sisters of the Poor convent on Harewood Road NE, park at the aging campus theater complex, and walk toward a creaky black box that actors and designers have obviously slaved in for days, you’ll start feeling guilty for mocking this particular theatrical endeavor.
Something Past in Front of the Light is not a comedy. Rather, it’s the world premiere of a serious drama by Kathleen Akerley, artistic director of local troupe Longacre Lea. The smart, absurdist premise is this: A team of filmmakers signs on to make a documentary recounting the life story of a well-known but elusive subject—Satan.
It’s a brilliant idea that would also make a great sketch on Saturday Night Live. I say that as a compliment. But as a two-and-a-half-hour play, Something Past gets to be a pretentious slog. Like a Latin mass, it can be tough to follow even if you give it your full attention. And when it’s over, you have to wonder whether there’s any redemptive value in such a ritualistic exercise.
If there is, it’s in the acting and brief moments of levity. The play opens at a storyboard session. Director Richard (a committed Christopher Henley) is attempting to get his team on the same page, which isn’t easy when your uncooperative subject is the devil (a convincing, grotesque Alexander Strain) and your cinematographer (Jason Lott) is a skeptical atheist. Lightening up the mood, or trying to, is Michael (Daniel Vito Siefring), the Buddha-esque British actor hired on as narrator.
Like nearly every scene, the opening drags. Parse the difficult dialogue, and it’s evident these characters are film-industry stereotypes. The cinematographer spouts movie allusions (“What is this, the infernal Borat?”), Michael offers the devil a Method-acting pep talk, and Richard prattles on idealistically about how he just wants to tell his subject’s truth.
So what’s truth to the devil? Akerley treats this and other questions a troublemaking teen might pose in catechism class—“Is the Bible true?” “Did the Jews kill Jesus?”—with overwrought solemnity.
The play’s best bits are staged behind a giant scrim. At the rear of the theater, framed by a giant fake monitor, additional cast members act out “footage” from the documentary. Scenes include interviews with the devil’s parents (he was a neglected, obstinate child) and a frantic tussle with his virginal high school prom date, Mary.
But these are only diversions in a play in which the prospect of eternal damnation is a central plot point. The entire show is delivered so earnestly, and in such dense language, that humor is crushed by the weight of its vestments. The script packs allusions to Milton, the OED, and Al Pacino. Woe to those who faked their way through Paradise Lost as an undergrad.
Act 1 ends with a confusing Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead–style murder subplot. Act 2 finds the director retreading Faust’s let’s-make-a-deal conundrum. Basically, name the literary or pop-cultural Satanic reference and it’s in this show, from cracks about a fiddle duel to “Sympathy for the Devil” assegue music.
Strain deserves a lot of credit for committing dialogue of Hamlet-like proportions (and syntax) to memory and then delivering a movement-rich performance. He’s dressed in ripped hoodies and slouches about like a college dropout. One moment he’s watching The Real World (the play’s funniest conceit); the next he’s stalking the stage and munching someone’s brain like it’s popcorn.
Gross. Clearly, Akerley and cast don’t want the audience to get too comfortable. Stick around for the ending and be rewarded with a chance to meet the Maker face to face. Treasure in heaven it’s not. Something Past in Front of the Light represents a monumental undertaking for an ambitious theater company. But sitting through it shouldn’t feel like the same.