Editors' pick

Something Past in Front of the Light

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Something Past in Front of the Light photo
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post
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Editorial Review

Wicked fun with the Devil you don’t know

By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011

What does the Devil watch on TV? Reality shows, of course, chortling at the mayhem as foul-mouthed, amoral youngsters compete to be "interesting."

"It's my fast food," Satan grins in "Something Past in Front of the Light," a brave and breezy new play by Kathleen Akerley that gives us the Devil we know and - more interestingly - the Devil we don't.

Of course Beelzebub giggles at the no-rules squalor on the tube. But did you know the poor fellow had a hard time growing up in the suburbs? He shows us his home movies, effectively staged by Akerley (who directed, with assistance from Michael Glenn) inside a big fake screen at the far end of the small Callan Theatre stage at Catholic University.

And as he explains what he's showing to the documentary filmmakers who want to make a movie about him, Alexander Strain unexpectedly plays the Devil as a neurotic kid, pouty and twitchy and routinely tucking his face deep inside his hoodie.

The potential documentary provides plenty of friction for Akerley's thoughtful drama. Does the movie have to tell the absolute truth? The director, who practically slobbers over the opportunity to work with such a legendary subject, doesn't think so. His Christian cinematographer, on the other hand, thinks accuracy and ethics matter, and he's skeptical that the guy they're dealing with is the Fiend himself.

As they argue, the Devil confounds the cliches that mankind perpetuates (though not the one about him being an expert tempter and a splendid debater). To raise the stakes - and perhaps also just because he's insulted - it's possible that he has ripped the documentary's narrator to bits.

So "Something Past" is about faith and narrative: What's the Devil's story, really? Akerley has wicked fun with this as the filmmakers audition impostors who want to star in the movie, and Jay Hardee's campy turn as a caped, gurgling demon wannabe is easily the show's comic high point.

But there are witticisms all along the way; it's a serious show that frequently runs on brisk banter. (George Bernard Shaw fans, there's your invitation.)

The production is by Longacre Lea, Akerley's once-a-year company, and the actors confidently take it in hand and keep you alert as they skirmish. Strain is a remarkable sparkplug: He's ridiculously compelling as the Devil, stalking the stage barefoot, the cuffs of his jeans rolled up and his face knotted.

It's not hard to buy in to the possibility that this elusive, silver-tongued, combustible figure is plugged in to staggering religious histories and theological possibilities. (Just wait till you hear his version of the crucifixion.)

The rest of the cast is up to the challenge of high purpose - actually facing God, could you ask the right questions? - and droll jokes. Christopher Henley amusingly soft-sells his portrait of the documentary filmmaker, a man fluent in the art of moral compromise. Jason Lott coolly and firmly delivers the Christian counterpoint as the cinematographer, and Daniel Vito Siefring is appropriately snarky as the actor who ruffles the Devil's feathers.

The arguments eventually grow pretty fine-grained, and by the second act you may suspect that a little more dramatic compression is possible. But the play is lively and unceasingly smart, and it's getting a darned good premiere.

Giving the devil his due

By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Aug. 12, 2011

Cerebral theater company Longacre Lea puts on precisely one production each year, so it follows that artistic director Kathleen Akerley would be careful about play selection. But even she will admit that her discerning nature can border on prohibitive.

"There aren't a lot of plays I like," she confesses.

But since Longacre's birth in 1998, Akerley has happily meandered into the worlds of Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Kurt Vonnegut. And the company's 14th season features another veteran playwright Akerley trusts: herself.

"How arrogant is that?" she jokes.

"Something Past in Front of the Light," which opened Wednesday, follows the devil on his quest to make a documentary about himself and examines the dynamic between Mephistopheles and the crew he hires to do the job. While it sounds like the foundation for a send-up of Biography Channel fare, the show is more than mere farce. The play, roughly Akerley's 20th, is foremost a drama that blends horror and magical realism with dashes of comic relief.

As with past Longacre productions, the show is meant to be a thought-provoking conversation starter, and it gives audience members a chance to examine their own preconceived notions of God and the devil.

"I think one of the biggest impediments in the human condition is the tendency of people to insist that things make sense their way," Akerley says, noting her frustration when people avoid having their brain tickled.

This is something Akerley, in her role as artistic director, has grappled with. She has been fighting the urge to become wedded to a certain vision of the play, while simultaneously inviting more collaboration. Although she has acted in past Longacre plays, not to mention doing sound and set design, Akerley has loosened her grip in recent years. It hasn't always been easy; when she first saw the lighting for "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" in 2006 she broke down in tears, "and not in a good way."

"I'm recognizing there's no harm in my vision if I run across the room and look at it from a different view," she says. "Every year, a designer will do something to get me to say, 'Oh, that's a new way of looking at it.' The actors do that, too."

When Akerley tackled Eugene O'Neill's "Beyond the Horizon" for American Century Theater earlier this year, it was the actors who helped unravel what Akerley calls "a salad bar of questions."

"It felt like we were on a safari together," she says. "It was an inquiry that ended up forging a sense of trust."

Of course, Akerley has the benefit of working with some local standouts. Helen Hayes nominee Alexander Strain and WSC Avant Bard (formerly Washington Shakespeare Company) artistic director Christopher Henley are among the eight-person cast. While Henley admits that many playwrights shouldn't direct their own works, he's confident Akerley is an exception to the rule. The key, he says, is the ability to remain objective when it comes to feedback from collaborators.

"I think Kathleen tries really, really hard to be open to that and not to be stubborn as a writer," he says.