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The Devil and Billy Markham

This funny and profane one-man show represents a decidedly different side to the writing of famed children's author Shel Silverstein. logo
Brit Herring in The Devil and Billy Markham
(© Gerry Goodstein)
If you're looking for something along the lines of A Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, or The Giving Tree, turn elsewhere. Algonquin Productions has found a different type of Shel Silverstein piece to stage: a dirty, epic poem by the famed children's author that was published in Playboy in January 1979. The Devil and Billy Markham, performed by Brit Herring, is a funny and profane one-man show. While the producers make no effort to hide the work's novelty and kitsch factor, audiences may be surprised by the amount of substance it has.

The show begins with an appeal to our lowbrow sensibilities in the form of an opening act: a Coney Island-style magic show performed by Nelson Lugo, who steps on shards of glass, puts his appendages through sharp steel traps, and hammers nails into his nostrils, all for our amusement. Lugo throws out one-liners like the best of the sideshow set. Performed in the Daryl Roth Theatre's sultry bar called the D-Lounge, the pre-show distraction primes the booze-fueled audience for pastry-light fun -- but this is one of those bait-and-switch situations.

What follows is the epic poem of a hubris-filled protagonist who goads both God and the Devil in rhymed verse. Billy Markham is a high-stakes gambler who doesn't care whom he offends or what he loses. He sells his soul in a craps game with impossible odds: The Devil will give him any earthly pleasure he wants if he rolls a thirteen. The problem isn't that the dice have only six spots each, it's that they have no spots at all. But the fact that the game is fixed doesn't mean Billy's not going to play. Pretty soon, he tries his luck, and sends his wife and family to eternal damnation.

Still, you can never count Billy out. He finds a way to humiliate the lord of the underworld in a way that would make Trey Parker and Matt Stone blush. Exiled from hell, he goes to the big guy upstairs to try his luck at a game of pool. If you think you can predict who'll win, don't be so sure; whatever answer you provide is bound to be incomplete. Silverstein's narrative is theologically complex, with a fallible God and a human (if sadistic) Fallen Angel. When there's a party in hell, it's filled with historical and literary figures, but not only evil ones. Great artists mingle with the most vicious dictators, and Adam even dances with the snake from the Garden of Eden, "just to show there's no hard feelings."

This sophistication shouldn't be surprising; such authors as Vladimir Nabokov, Margaret Atwood, and Ian Fleming have had Playboy bylines, and Silverstein's verse mixes with with the guilty fun that made it appropriate for the porno mag set. It would be almost impossible to keep score of all the sexual and scatological references herein, so let's put it this way: fly feces plays a major role in the plot, and there isn't a sex act that the author hasn't found a way to rhyme in iambic pentameter.

Herring plays Billy with all the hubris, bravado, and bluster that the role demands; this is a man who was born without a sense of guilt, shame, or fear of authority, yet who eventually discovers the meaning of love. A three-piece band backs up the performer with style and wit, at one point playing "Stairway to Heaven" as the protagonist ascends to the pearly gates. Tightly directed by Thomas Cote, The Devil and Billy Markham is a rare kind of play, a guilty pleasure that discerning theatergoers don't need to feel guilty about.

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