(Disclosure: I was not given anything in return for this review -- I paid for my own ticket, and in fact have not informed the People's Theater Lab that I am writing this review. However, the playwright is a friend of mine who I lived with for a semester a year ago, and the two of us have briefly discussed the possibility of me publishing his script.)
Friday night, I went back to the Bleecker Theater to see the latest version of Nik Walker's The Devil and Thomas Briggs at the Bleecker Theater, with a skeptical eye and my arms crossed. A year ago, it had gotten staged reading, before which I had written a feature article on their company (The People's Theater Lab) for the Washington Square News. Back then, Nik Walker had said to me in a moment of triumph, "'What Shakespeare did for blank verse, I want to do for spoken word."
Sitting in the theater last night, I noticed that the same aim, which had also been expressed in the program for the staged reading, was not in the program this time around. But I still remembered that end goal, and that was the metric by which I was going to measure the company's performance.
What a relief that they achieved it!
The Devil and Thomas Briggs is a soulful, blues tragedy; it focuses in on a town named Babylon "where God and the Devil aren't just names," and where a singular man whose blues music and bad living is the city's heartbeat -- until the day he's shot dead at a bar one night. From that moment forward, the family he leaves behind is torn between moving forward, or struggling against the Devil herself to bring him back.
Thomas Briggs has found a sweet mixture between 2 parts blues, 1 part blank verse, and 1 part Shakespeare that hits the spot. The writing is surprisingly tight despite the languorous, silky tone and rhythm, which leads to some fantastic surprises when the plot turns on a dime, or a character whips out a one-liner that cracks the audience up. And, of course, there's one advantage this play has over Shakespeare -- I can honestly say that in almost every moment, I had no idea where it was going.
The play could have come off as pretentious -- the imagery, unlike the narrow, earth-bound imagery of a lot of contemporary writing, dances among the stars and leans on hyperbole like it was a walking stick. But the astral lyricism is mixed with a deep, heavy, grounded sense of soul that only this heartbreakingly genuine cast could sell.
Nik Walker, in addition to having written the play, plays two central characters; Cicero Briggs, the dead blues man who used to hold a city together, and Billy Bones, an earnest young deputy in the town. He plays both with a dangerous edge with a genuine heart that drives home the uncertainty of where the play is going. Thomas Briggs, the man who risks everything to bring Cicero back, is beautifully drawn into life by Sam Encarnacion, drawing us into the world of deep love and fear that was the Briggs family.
The rest of the cast were equally superb -- Bianca Rutigliano as the Devil herself, so dangerous and sexual that she makes the air crackle, Jesse Goldwater as Remy Gin Rummy, who bravely pulls a character that could be an insufferable ass into the realm of believability, and Chivonne Floyd, the glue that holds the Briggs together. And it would be remiss of me to write about this sultry blues opus without tipping my hat to the band, cheerfully dubbed Bad Ass Mother 4000 v2.0. The band, featuring Alex Goley, Travis Artz and Alex Kveton, holds up the world of the play through the music -- without the music, all those words would be about nothing.
There's one more opportunity to see this fantastic production live, so if you're free at 3:00, saunter over here to buy tickets, or make it to the Bleecker Theater (45 Bleecker St) and see what the fuss is about.