A Devil Inside

WebDEVILA Devil Inside is an experiment in physicality.  It’s an insane show; in that, it plays with the concept of ‘madness’.  Though it’s very likable, almost cute, with how over the top it gets.  It’s exceptional camp, with breakaway performances by the entire ensemble.

The show is exemplary for its steady build, starting with a flat sitcom-y vibe that gets betrayed by the introduction of an odd premise: a severed pair of feet, idle in a jar.  This is only the tip of the slew of totems which come to a head in a grand finale, a veritable munitions factory of Chekhov’s guns that come to their realization as a convoluted, crazy plot imposes its structure like a confident game of whack-a-mole.

I really appreciated the slip-handed way the absurd dynamics of this play are introduced.  Beautifully channeled by Terry Wickline’s Mrs. Slater; she has that uncanny ability of someone who corrals trust with sincerity, but whose dubiousness accelerates with everything she says, every anecdote.  She’s bonkers.  Wickline carries this persona so well, so lovingly and maternal.  She should be medicated.  She should be denied being able to provide information…and yet, stepping into this play is stepping into the unhinged, the land of unreliable narrators.  Within a descent into madness, comes a trust for the implausible.

Terry Wickline (Mrs. Slater), Michael Fuller (Brad), & Philip Winters (Carl)
Terry Wickline (Mrs. Slater), Michael Fuller (Brad), & Philip Winters (Carl)

This show’s strength is its physicality.  Large amounts of kinetic, vibrant performances like that of Philip Winters as Carl, a professor of Russian Literature, who by his own obsessive prowess falls into the role of Dostoyevsky’s playfully murderous Raskolnikov.  As Dostoyevsky toys with the idea of murder, so we see Winters’ Carl become overtly drawn to the notion.  What stands out is how alive and gargantuan the figure that Philip Winters creates and becomes.  We see him Frankenstein out into a very living, ugly monster and unexpectedly find weird dimensions of weakness and strange logic as the madness engulfs him and he’s no longer the craziest person in the room.

That’s owing to the kinetic energy in this show.  It is very responsive and intimate.  Director Kim Martin must have enabled their cast through exercises because this show really illuminates the language of the body and the scope of movement.  It plays with many things: the mime of being possessed, the wild agitation that comes with hysterics, the synchronization of slowdowns, or the gravity of the cast suddenly becoming mannequin.

Philip Winters (Carl)  & Hayley Nielsen (Caitlin)
Philip Winters (Carl) & Hayley Nielsen (Caitlin)

Philip Winters and Michael Fuller do a terrific job allowing their characters to overtake their bodies and become unreal monsters.  It’s very over-the-top, because as I said, this play is camp.  It’s deranged and playful, maybe even a bit nihilistic; and certainly weird and macabre.

Hayley Nielsen does a great job as Caitlin, a manic pixie dream girl whose transformation into lunacy is rather unexpected and therefore all the more exciting as she lunges towards her end of madness.  Her ability to balance cheerfulness and menace created a character that really subverted expectation but then allowed for a performance which was pure Strangelove.  She trumps, and the power that she ends up wielding is dangerous.

Daina Michelle Griffith (Lily) & Michael Fuller (Brad)
Daina Michelle Griffith (Lily) & Michael Fuller (Brad)

The set is a wall cluttered with what I presume to be a TGI Fridays that vomited itself onto a chain link fence.  The orchestration of the madness makes for an almost unsightly amount of clutter.  What’s impressive about the display is how, with dynamic lighting or demonstration, singular elements of this chaotic display step out and come to life.  Let me reiterate: the structure appears chaotic, but when brought into the bounds of a focus suddenly an immediate and careful relevance is made apparent.

The show, as well, operates in a similar vein. Given its barrel of ominous monkeys (a belt, a broken skateboard, a baby blanket and a, uuuhh, oh yeah, a gun!) it seems to be leading all over the place, but it manages to bring its characters back into their fraught and dismayed storylines with panache. Like a double helix,  the way it appears twisted and yet contains a taut structure underneath the mayhem allows for an ironic source of closure for what should be a pretty gutting tragedy.  You walk away smiling, because they play sums itself up with its plot even if its deeper meaning is the numbness of utter depravity.

Cav O'Leary (Gene) & Hayley Nielsen (Caitlin)
Cav O’Leary (Gene) & Hayley Nielsen (Caitlin)

This allows for more subdued characters which unveil themselves to subtly undergo the path of pandemonium.  Michael Fuller, Daina Michelle Griffith, and Cav O’Leary all play parts which are the straight man.  They are the foil to the comedy emerging around them.  The brilliance of each of their performances, however, is that as the madness eclipses their very bodies with possession (hence, “a devil inside”), so their performance mutates from straight man to bizarre unraveling.  Each of these actors dispels their normalcy for an evolution towards an over-the-top crescendo, which makes every single character equally, and undeniably exciting.

What you’re left with by the end of the show is nothing but audacious punches, a really riveting streak of riff-raff that becomes so compelling, so twisted and absurd; it’s hard not to fall over in the seat from a fit just watching.  I was thoroughly impressed with how large this show could make itself, and how big everyone can go.  It’s 100% bananas.  And it’s really a lot of fun.

A Devil Inside runs at the Pittsburgh Playhouse through February 18. For tickets and more information, click here.

Photos by John Altdorfer