The Screwtape Letters

by Steven Hammond

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday October 18, 2008

Yvonne Gougelet and Max McLean in "The Screwtape Letters."
Yvonne Gougelet and Max McLean in "The Screwtape Letters."  

"Sold-Out in NYC & DC!" "Wickedly Witty" - The Wall Street Journal "Pure Genius" - National Review "A Compelling New Production" - Washington Post...YIKES! As one of the few, if not lone dissenting voice I must question whether or not people really pay attention to what they praising in the theaters, or if they have made up their minds before they even attend. The Screwtape Letters does not deserve the aforementioned praise.

Adapted from C.S. Lewis's book by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean, "The Screwtape Letters" are meant to be a high ranking demon's advice to his nephew - a younger tempter - on how to lure a human away from God. Each letter offers new insight on how to exploit Christian ideals to the needs of the young demon so he may capture "the patient's" soul and feast upon it in hell.

So, to recap, we sit for 90 minutes while Screwtape (Max McLean) dictates letters through his personal secretary Toadpipe (Yvonne Gougelet). The play takes place in one location, Screwtape's office, which consists of a leather arm chair, footstool, side table, and a ladder that runs from floor to ceiling where an interoffice mailbox is perched. In this setting we have no safe distractions or interruptions from McLean's sloppy and annoying mimic of a British accent that serves no purpose for the advancement of the story. It is a shame that Toadpipe does not have any speaking parts, but there are moments when she growls, and does a great job pantomiming certain actions; though McLean's booming drunkard's drawl quickly erases any positives established by Gougelet.

Another goofy aspect of the performance was the audience's laughter. After all, we are talking about self-centered demons who are trying to capture human souls so they may have something to feast upon. If my inept nephew was possibly creating a situation that threatened my spot on the food chain, I would not be witty when illustrating how to take advantage of "the patient." And if the audience can laugh as Screwtape runs through his tactics for gaining mind control over the humans, then they should be able to laugh at the words of Jim Jones and Charles Manson since it all runs in the same vein. McLean does not help matters by delivering most of his lines with a smile. If the lines were consistently delivered in a manner that emphasized the underlying cruelty, the play could have been a much bigger success.

For such a minor role, Yvonne Gougelet's performance as Toadpipe single-handedly kept me from walking out of the theater. At the snap of a finger she transforms from a creature that snarls and crawls around on all fours into caricatures of a gluttonous old woman or angelic Christian. Constantly attentive and playing off of McLean's lead, Gougelet's acting is not only concise but very physical, as she uses her body to climb, crawl, contort and scramble around.

Go see Gougelet if you want to spend the money and the time (90 minutes) to spare; otherwise pass on "The Screwtape Letters."

The Mercury Theater
3745 N. Southport, Chicago
Box Office: 773-325-1700
A Price Seating $48.50
B Price Seating $29 (Wed - Thu) $39 (Fri - Sun)
Playing now through November 9th

Steven Hammond is a Chicago poet, photographer, and author of the book P, Anyone?