“I’ve been waiting for this date for six hundred years.”
The Fringe is one of the few times and places out of the year where I can see a young man with horns growing out of his forehead just standing in the lobby nearby and not be worried. The young man was actor Jonathan Gregory, who plays Satan in Vanderpan Enterprises’ Fringe show Three Days In Hell, and the horns are something he had to come to the theater with already in place. The ten minute load-in time allotted for each show isn’t quite enough time for the horns to stick to his forehead.
Frankly, seeing the set by Tim Albertson, I’m surprised that hell can be constructed in ten minutes - or at least Satan’s little corner of hell. The set for Three Days In Hell is one of the more substantial pieces of stagecraft I’ve seen in the festival this year. Several hinged sections combine to form a sturdy set of walls for Satan’s home which include an open doorway on one end, plus a functioning wooden front door on the other, and a window between with a painted fiery hellscape on display. It’s surprisingly suburban in some ways. Satan’s little bachelor pad.
Jonathan Wemmette’s script for Three Days In Hell is close kin to a Fringe show I really liked last year, Deviled Eggs from Nick Ryan and Four Humors. Both are comedies with a clever, and surprisingly sound, theological base. But where Deviled Eggs was sprawling and apocalyptic in scope, Three Days In Hell is a more intimate affair. Also, Three Days In Hell is about the end of the First Coming, not the beginning of the Second. Just as Satan’s finally about to get that date with the girl at the office, God sends Jesus (Ben Russell) down to stay with him for a few days - between the crucifixion and the resurrection. And Jesus brings his two friends from Calvary along with him - the hulking Barnabas (Kevin Albertson) and the smaller, quiet Tryphon (Ryan Hogan). A weekend with the boys definitely throws a kink into plans for a dinner date. Also throwing a wrench into things is the fact that Jesus isn’t leaving hell alone. He’ll be taking the righteous with him up to heaven and leaving the damned behind. Unfortunately, Barnabas made the cut, but Tryphon didn’t. The list of good souls also includes Satan’s intended date. Barnabas, not wanting to leave his best friend Tryphon behind, hatches a plan to help Satan land the woman he wants, so there’ll be an extra space on the list so Tryphon can join him.
Amid the dating lessons, there are repeated phone calls from God, making God one of the funniest offstage characters I’ve never heard a line of dialogue from in a long time. In fact, overall, Three Days In Hell is one of the funnier comedies I’ve seen in a while, period. I’m quite taken with its strategy of using Biblical figures, and (pardon the sacrilege) plot lines, as a jumping off point for a script that ends up being neither a Sunday school lesson, nor a half-baked Da Vinci Code-like bit of revisionist storytelling. Artistic license is taken, but it is nowhere near grand theft. After seeing this, and learning a little more about the content of last year’s Vanderpan Fringe outing, I’m adding “Johan Santana’s Perfect Game” to the list of shows I’m sorry I missed in 2006. Despite the difference in subject matter, some of the underlying themes and relationship concerns appear to be the same.
One of the things I really enjoyed was the exploration of the interrelationships between the four men - Satan, Jesus, Barnabas and Tryphon. The grudging friendship between the two supernatural beings; the power of the bond between the two human friends, and how they were willing to take on formidable odds and adversaries to stay together and save each other. Though all four characters were heterosexual, the play got a lot of mileage out of the discomfort and homoerotic subtext present in the role-playing date practice and all male dancing lessons that evolved out of the two men trying to get Satan ready to make his case to his lady friend. Again, just as in its even-handed treatment of religion, issues of sexuality weren’t the occasion for cheap humor. It was laughter of recognition and understanding, not mockery. It’s a fine line, but Three Days In Hell and its cast walked that line carefully and to maximum effect.
There are even special effects, especially a great little “turning water into wine” trick where Jesus is trying to help Satan get the necessary refreshment ready for the big date. Limitations of time and place did impinge on the script in spots throughout. I’ve heard there’s a longer version of this script in which Satan’s date actually makes an appearance. Here, we knew we were dealing with just a four person cast, so any suspense about whether the date will actually take place or not is undercut by the reality of there being no female actor in reserve for later in the play. Consequently, we get another series of phone calls. We know God can make a comedy phone call work. Satan’s office mate has less comedic power at her command as we have no preconceived notion about her or her existence. While I admire the set a great deal, and enjoy the amount of use the play and cast make of it, the immutability of that structure onstage again makes it clear that there will be few surprises. In addition, anything that happens outside that room, we’re going to have to be told about, we won’t be able to see it. Reporting after the fact is always less compelling than seeing the evidence and events for ourselves in the audience. This awareness on the part of the spectator that the play is straining against its own self-imposed limits, a feeling which took me out of the story a bit when I should have been focused on the events in front of me, is the only real disadvantage to squeezing this play into a Fringe-sized package.
The cast is wonderful without exception. Ben Russell has a tall order in front of him, playing the Lord and Savior of many - being respectful but still managing to have fun had to have been a tricky task indeed. He pulls it off with great comic style. His wrath when Barnabas defies him toward the end is genuinely unsettling. You don’t want to get on this guy’s bad side. Most of the time he’s quite genial, but even Jesus has his limits.
Kevin Albertson as the good-natured and loyal Barnabas is humorous and touching in his dogged quest to make sure his friend gets to come to heaven with him. When it looks like it’s not going to happen, he’s ready to take drastic measures which involve his own life in the hereafter.
Ryan Hogan is a man of few words as Tryphon, but he’s also a man of confidence, and someone who’s not afraid to face the fact that his afterlife may not be all he hoped for. His store of dating advice for Satan is most amusing.
Finally, as the landlord of hell, Jonathan Gregory is probably the nicest incarnation of Satan I’ve ever seen. His comical anger, when it erupts, comes from a place of frustration rather than evil. His symbiotic relationship with God and Jesus is intriguing to contemplate. Standing there in business casual attire, forlorn and beleaguered by the twists and turns of his upended weekend plans, you almost feel sorry for the guy. Sympathy for the devil comes easily in Three Days In Hell. (And I know it’s wrong to say this, on several levels, but Satan’s hot.)
With a setup like this one, there are any number of ways it could go wrong. But Three Days In Hell, both the script and the performances, nimbly avoids nearly all of them. Good script, fine cast, lots of laughs - really, when you’re coasting into your final couple of shows at the Fringe - it’s great to just be able to kick back and know you’re in capable hands. Though the producer/playwright Jonathan Wemmette is now based in Florida, I do hope his local ties will lure him back again for more Minnesota Fringe productions. Three Days In Hell was a very pleasant surprise. With the clock ticking on my final day at the Fringe, I’m really glad I was able to squeeze it in. Being introduced to another fine writer and group of actors like this who you can follow throughout the year is one of the bonuses of a full schedule of Fringe-going. Vanderpan has a page set up for Three Days In Hell, so if you're curious what they're up to next, start by checking in at www.myspace.com/threedaysinhell
category: 4 Star Shows - Excellent Tuesday, September 11, 2007 at 8:11 PM