The Faustian bargain, or “Deal with the Devil”, is often used to explain virtuoso musical talent, and none looms larger in American lore than the fabled deal struck between Satan and legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson at a moonlit Mississippi crossroads.
Flying V Theater Company presents a bold, hilarious take on Johnson’s afterlife, wherein the musician battles for his soul during one endless night on the Prince of Darkness’ twisted talk show.
This imaginative production unfolds on a soundstage in Hell, as the sharply dressed, bespectacled Devil, played by Alex Vernon, banters with his nightly audience of demons and the damned. After Satan introduces Johnson, played by JaBen Early, the music legend talks about his time in Hell and his fateful bargain before teaming with the house band on a few searing blues numbers. Just as he’s about to finish his best song yet, the Devil calls a “commercial break” and rewinds time. As the play unfolds, the process repeats over and over with subtle variations, and Johnson struggles to escape his loop of torment and finally finish his magnum opus.
Writer Seamus Sullivan drafted a symbiotic relationship between Johnson and the Devil that sits at the heart of the play. Even though Johnson is endlessly stymied by Satan’s cruel machinations, he fears escape and the loss of both his prodigious talent and nightly audience. By the same token, events transpire that prove the Devil needs Johnson just as much, if not more. Their relationship gives a more concrete meaning to the old saying, “Better the Devil you know, than the Devil you don’t”.
Alex Vernon and JaBen Early exhibit practiced chemistry as old friends and adversaries engaged in a ceaseless battle of wits. Vernon is well suited to his demonic rule, with his comic book villain moustache, wicked grin, and mile-wide mean streak. Early brings his easy charm and smooth baritone to bear on a musician fighting to keep his cool in extremely trying conditions.
The story twists with each rewind, as each character reveals hidden pasts and the sins that earned them a one way ticket to the Underworld. Midway through the show, the Devil brings out an intriguing second guest in Tamara, Robert’s liberal, bleeding heart, ocarina-playing girlfriend. Tamara carries a chip on her shoulder over being damned after a young life spent helping the homeless and saving the whales. As Hell’s most compassionate citizen, actress Maya Jackson’s fiery presence and dynamite delivery of acid one liners serves as the perfect counterpoint to Early’s near-unflappable calm.
Much of the sharp humor derives from Sullivan’s rendering of the horrible mythologies of Hell into mundane inconveniences. A typical day for the characters may involve demon bears with human voices, halls of pain, screaming souls, and lakes of fire.
As freshly damned drummer Aaron, Robert Manzo flails about hysterically as he battles horrors ripped from Dante, Lovecraft, and Stephen King and tries to keep the beat as Hell’s new band leader. His schlubby, everyman quality fits well into the role of the audience’s man on the scene, as he comically breaks the fourth wall to talk with the crowd and escape the Devil’s loop.
Mark Halpern’s score features scorching blues driven by Steve Attix’s squealing guitar. Halpern even throws in some demonic ukelele for good measure. Set designer Andrew Berry swaps Hell’s typical pools of lava for a scarlet office set, featuring comfy armchairs and a stately desk, as well as a glass sculpture of flames erupting from the base. All mesh well with Seamus Sullivan’s vision of a more refined Lucifer with classic style and musical taste.
The plot becomes a bit rushed and choppy toward the end of the play as the Devil’s scheme reaches fruition. The chaotic final act resolves abruptly following the final plot twist, culminating in some bewildering moments and a relatively short 60 minute runtime. It’s a rare strike against the show, one that could be remedied with additional exposition. Even five more minutes invested into Robert and Tamara’s relationship would make for a smoother, more satisfying conclusion.
In the end, however, it’s a minor knock against a fresh, brainy production. Me and the Devil Blues descends to a dark place and fills it with laughter and classic American music. Just don’t come expecting a repeat of the duel in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. The Devil learned his lesson long ago, and this time, he’s ready.
Me and the Devil Blues has 6 performances, ending July 29, 2012, at Redrum at Fort Fringe, located at 612 L St NW, Washington, DC.
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Ben rates this 4 out of a possible 5.