'Oh, Hell!' giving the Devil his due

By John Quinn

There's always a whiff of anarchy hovering around The Abreact Performance Space. So it's not too surprising they are offering a devilish delight 'way before Halloween. Besides, they already have a hot mess of a holiday show - "Hot Mess Chronicles III," coming your way next month. Anyway, "Oh, Hell!" isn't a spooky tale. It's a fresh tribute to a couple of powerhouses in American literature.

"Oh, Hell!" is a union of lesser known works by two of the greats: David Mamet ("Glengarry Glen Ross," "American Buffalo") and poet, playwright and songwriter Shel Silverstein ("The Giving Tree," "A Light in the Attic"). The result is a unique opportunity to experience how two masters handle a common theme.

Bob Gould is a major character in Mamet's 1988 satire, "Speed the Plow." There, he is a film studio executive who's happy to participate in the decline and fall of the common culture as long as the money's right. In "Bobby Gould in Hell" he finds himself in the reception room of Hades, called, in a large part, to account for his callous use of other people. Confronted by a devil of an inquisitor and his demon assistant, Bob can only insist there's been a mistake. Like Dorothy in Oz, all he can moan is, "I want to go home!"

Mamet manages to wrap some pithy metaphysics in hilarious cynicism. Particularly striking is the question: What is "badness?" Does evil rest in the intent to act, or in the act itself? If a good man does bad things, is he still a good man? This is heavy stuff for such a slick comedy.

Adam Barnowski slides into Bobby's oily character with panache. It would be interesting to see him interpret the role in "Speed the Plow." Here he avoids being upstaged by the outrageous performances of Joel Mitchell as the Interrogator and Dax Anderson as his hapless assistant. Anderson, in fact, sports the most memorable character makeup I've seen in many a year. Also on the money is Katie Galazka as Bobby's one-time girlfriend Glenna; summoned to Hell as a witness for the prosecution, she may be too hot for Hell to handle.

Act II of "Oh, Hell!" is an eye-opener. I'm not much of a Shel Silverstein fan - he's a little too sentimental for my taste. Imagine my surprise to find that his poem "The Devil and Billy Markham" is a raunchy, rough 'n' ready opus with a theme older than a medieval morality play. If you deal with the Devil, you're going to lose your soul. In the tradition of country music, songster Billy can't resist the Devil's challenge to bet his soul on a rigged dice game. As is common in such tales, there is a loophole. But Silverstein goes beyond tradition to weave a complex epic that's totally original.

I remember Peter Prouty's command of voice from his work at the Hilberry Theatre. As the sole performer in "The Devil and Billy Markham," his work is exceptional. He moves effortlessly between characters so well defined you'd swear that there's more than one actor in the dialogues. It is especially noteworthy how director Charles Reynolds and Prouty keep the epic-length "Billy Markham" constantly interesting through very natural blocking.

I'll go out on a limb and infer that Charles Reynolds is responsible for this happy marriage of one acts. To him, his cast and crew, I offer my Grandmother's favorite blessing, "May you be in Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you're dead!

'Oh, Hell!'

The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit. Friday-Saturday through Oct. 1, plus Sunday, Sept. 25. Admission by donation. 313-454-1542. http://www.theabreact.com

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