The Devil and Billy Markham
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
November 3, 2006
Sometimes a hopeless gamble seems so much sweeter when all you got is bad luck.
You'd sell your soul for a taste of gold and a bottle of love to suck.
But you'll always lose when you choose to gamble with the Devil.
Unless you're aware that when you dare no playing field is ever level.
This little ditty was inspired by Algonquin's fantastic new production of Shel Silverstein's The Devil and Billy Markham. It tells you a little bit about the premise of the show. Billy is a musician down on his luck who takes a bet from the Devil that he can roll a thirteen with a blank pair of dice. Sure, he loses his soul, but that's just where the story begins. Billy and the Devil are more alike than they know and when it comes to backstabbing and selfish acts, they are running neck and neck. Just when you think one has the upper hand, the other comes from behind (sometimes quite literally) and gets the better of the other. It's a hilarious and absorbing story told in verse by a narrator.
Shel Silverstein originally published the play as a series of narrative poems in Playboy magazine back in 1979. Silverstein may be best known for his children's books but he is much more than a children's writer. He's written famous songs such as "A Boy Named Sue," and many articles and books for adults. He was a cartoonist for Playboy for quite some time. However, with The Devil and Billy Markham, Silverstein makes a bold statement about the unscrupulous nature of humankind. Granted it's nothing that hasn't been said before, but it's the way he says it that makes this play and Algonquin's production of it so captivating.
Algonquin keeps it simple. We have just one storyteller backed up by two musicians. Brit Herring tells the story with loads of energy and distinct characterizations. Herring's creeping sideburns and rockabilly style create the perfect look for the person telling this story. He makes every single minute tantalizing by drawing us in with his eyes and gestures. He goes the extra mile stanza for stanza and never appears to be reciting poetry. He delivers a powerful and unforgettable performance along with his backup musicians.
Sean Singer and Trey Albright play guitar and drums respectively. They have a great handle on the style needed to sell the moments they play through, and director Thomas Cote does a fine job placing them. They jam with zeal for brief stints while at other times they provide some sound effects. Cote also does a great job with the intimate space. He never forgets that with this play his audience wants to feel like they're sitting around a campfire listening to a yarn being spun as if it were spontaneous and living. Lighting designer Evan Purcell also creates some good movement with light in a play that has very light movement.
I had a great time at this show. The venue is cabaret style so I was able to relax and have a drink while I watched Herring and his companions pay their dues to the Devil.