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The Devil in Doc Martens

Experimental theater offers alternative history



It's still too soon to speculate that every Goth will get her day, but at the LIDA Project's new MK-Ultra Theatre, the night belongs to Satan. Even with the dozens of experimental theaters striving for cutting-edge Front Range productions, there has never been a draw for those who have given themselves over to the dark side. Until now.

It's not exactly the revolutionary piece of theater that The Rocky Horror Picture Show was when it first hit London stages, but Clive Barker's The History of the Devil: Scenes From a Pretended Life is certainly a change of pace for those who tire of the tried-and-true classics and who are searching for a theatrical experience closer to their own black-on-black sensibilities.

The History of the Devil delivers the goods to an audience of castoffs and outsiders, offering "black magic," sexual perversion, infernal suffering and a litany of sadistic footnotes from the life and times of this fallen angel. The story takes place in Kenya, 60 miles east of where Eden stood, a suitably fiery climate for the devil to state his case. Old Satan is up for parole after being thrown out of heaven countless millenniums ago. Having demanded a trial, Satan uses his antics and deeds over the course of human history as evidence of his eligibility to return to heaven.

Director Robert Burns Brown makes the most of the black-box space that is the new home of the LIDA Project. The entire stage is covered with several inches of sand, replicating the Kenyan landscape and giving a primordial atmosphere to the entire production. The rest of Hannah Boigon's set is a black background of cryptic altars, a variety of shapes and forms emerging from the abyss to serve as the seat of judgment for Satan's trials, and a platform from which he can tempt his adversaries and his audience. Diane Linger has created a relentlessly macabre soundtrack, filled with brooding, spooky scoring that is destined for a long life on violent fantasy video and computer games.

If there's one place the devil gets his due, it's in the performance of Nils Kiehn in the title role. Kiehn's performance is one of the highlights of the evening, elevating the production and his fellow cast members, even -- for a while -- making Barker's play seem substantially better than it is. Kiehn slithers through the role in a cloak and Doc Martens, creating an appropriately sinister carriage, shunning clich as he latches onto an underworldy appeal that is utterly convincing, though not quite intoxicating enough to prompt conversion.

The play's least original sin is its self-indulgence, starting with Barker's somewhat static courtroom script searching for the perfect marriage in a cast -- any cast -- of self-absorbed actors who already believe they are making art whenever they don a black turtleneck. Though Brown's direction is evident in the solid work of the ensemble, there are handicaps in the script that are too difficult to overcome. Barker too easily settles for the same devil the Puritans imagined, dredging up images from the Salem witch trials, echoing a Satan who haunts the woods, staging bloodthirsty orgies and frenzied devotion from easily misled youth.

After launching a winning concept -- the devil's parole hearing -- Barker comes up short on maintaining innovation and surprise over the course of the whole play. The cast take themselves too seriously, though there's plenty of room for humor. Consider the droll lines of the newly discovered diary of Jesus revealed in the play: "It was hot. I met a lion. I met another lion. I saw two baboons having a pop." Barker's certainly no comedian -- how do you explain a full-length courtroom play about Satan without giving in to the obvious punchlines about lawyers? -- but despite an audience sporting black fingernail polish ready to laugh at Nietsche's expense, there is very little humor in the performances.

The production itself finds ways to be provocative and risky, despite the fact that the play -- an early work from Barker -- is made of too little for too long.

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