Masterful solo show of a C.S. Lewis tale
By Toby Zinman (Philadelphia Inquirer Critic, '08)
Location, location, location. Where are we? In a dingy town or a radiant abyss? Earth? Hell? Heaven? Life? Death? "And terror whispered, 'This is no place for you.' " Anthony Lawton's masterful solo show, The Great Divorce, adapted from C.S. Lewis' allegorical novel, creates location after location - all on a gray stage, wearing gray clothes, with a gray face.
It begins, as many good stories do, on a dark and stormy night. A sensible-sounding man who has been walking endlessly but arriving nowhere joins a group of quarrelsome strangers waiting for a bus. The bus, not unlike E.M. Forster's Celestial Omnibus, is magical, flying through the air from this hell on Earth to a surprising heaven. The man meets a variety of ghosts, as well as giant angels who speak with Scottish accents.
The characters - from the whining, misunderstood poet to the self-righteous, husband-crushing wife, to the "plain man" who only wants "his rights," to the outraged cynic who sees the wonders of the world as a series of tourist traps, to the degenerate tormented by his own lustful inclination in the shape of a small red reptile - all come to life through Lawton's voice.
Much of what is remarkable about Lewis' story is the narrative detail: Life has been closely observed - birds, clouds, flowers, people's faces - and he can create spectacular images by painting with language on the mind's canvas. Each of us in the audience sees what we see according to our needs and our imaginations, from the unpluckable, diamond-hard daisy to the "man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air." Lewis' old-fashioned, very literary vocabulary springs to life, making us contemplate astronomical distances so great they "made the solar system itself seem an indoor affair."
Much of what is remarkable about Lawton's performance is the detail - the bend of a knee, the raising of an eyebrow, the roll of an R - all the theatrical shape-shifting actors do that becomes part of the larger point: The actor himself seems both more and less than corporeal, "a man-shaped stain," an individual human as well as the human condition.
Reprising his performance of 2006, Lawton clearly intends this as a show for the season: a deeply spiritual investigation into human behavior and moral responsibility. New Year's resolutions cubed.
But the play is entertaining as well as thought-provoking. Consider this adorable zinger: "Who will give me the words to express the terror of that discovery? Golly."
The difference between this performance and the one I saw two years ago (dimmed by time and cluttered memory) is that now it feels less optimistic, less an assertion of a redemption, of a person's capacity to learn from an epiphany, a revelatory dream, a philosophic inquiry. It seems merely to assert the necessity of self-renovation, not to declare the deal done.
Lewis, a philosopher best known for his allegorical Chronicles of Narnia books for children, was a convert from atheism to devout Christianity, which may be one of the many possible meanings of the title The Great Divorce.
by David Anthony Fox (Philadelphia City Paper, '08)
It's the most basic recipe for theater there is: a bare stage, an actor and a story. On the Lantern Theater stage, the actor is Anthony Lawton. The story — a ghost story, really — is C.S. Lewis' parable The Great Divorce. And the result is magic.
The actor first. Tony Lawton is a mainstay of Philly stages, and we're very lucky. I've seen him in more plays than I can count, and he's never given an uninteresting performance. Quite the contrary: In a huge range of work (drama and comedy, contemporary and classical, playing characters sinister and likable), he's varied, intelligent and often — as in Lonesome West last year, also at Lantern, where he is given some of his best opportunities — absolutely riveting. A few years ago, I would have characterized Lawton's acting as notable for a sly, unsettling raffishness — there was always a twinkle, but something a little destabilizing lay underneath. Like all of us, Lawton has gotten older. But as an actor, it's only made him more interesting. The boyishness is still there, and so — when necessary — is the danger. And like all great actors, he is in masterful control. But now, Lawton shows a new level of experience, tinged with mournfulness. It's these qualities that emerge through so strikingly when the lights come up on him, ashen-faced, eyebrows fixed tragic-comically, as he begins narrating.
Now the story. A group of people, not obviously connected, find themselves bus-bound one rainy night on a long ride that has no clear purpose or destination. Though Lewis provides some context — on one level, Divorce takes place in Britain during the dark days of World War II — it becomes gradually clearer that the setting is metaphoric, the characters ghostly shadows shuttling between heaven and hell. This journey — "vacation," as Lewis dryly puts it — is a test of character, even a lesson in "goodness." Those who know Lewis only through his Chronicles of Narnia novels might be surprised by the wry and very adult themes here, though they will recognize the underlying Christian allegory.
Lawton has done the adaptation himself, and one of the great joys is his way with the charmingly archaic prose. He serves as narrator as well as playing the various characters, each of whom is delineated by skillful body language and accents — but to me, the greater exhibition of virtuosity is the way he can create a vivid visual picture from the slightest play of textual emphasis and facial expression. From the quiet, seemingly casual beginning to the unforgettable final moments, Lawton has us in the palm of his hand. For Philadelphia audiences, The Great Divorce is unmissable, and a celebration of the very happy marriage between Tony Lawton and Lantern Theater. Let's hope for many anniversaries to come.
The power of change in 'Great Divorce'
Philadelphia Inquirer Critic (2006)
Now this is storytelling. Anthony Lawton holds us rapt -- you can feel the intensity of the audience's attention -- with his masterful performance in The Great Divorce, the actor's own adaptation of the C.S. Lewis novel of the same name. Lantern Theater first presented this impressive show a year ago, and the timing of this reprise, for a brief run between the holidays, seems particularly right.
The Great Divorce is a show for the new year, although certainly not a conventionally cheery, champagney one. Steeped in Christian theology, as most of Lewis' fiction is (he is best known for his Chronicles of Narnia books for children), this philosophical allegory is about new beginnings and moral decisions and life-altering resolutions.
A man finds himself waiting for a bus with a group of quarrelsome strangers. The night is dark, the company is nasty, and the town is somehow surreal. he boards the bus for a journey from this Hell to a surprising Heaven, where he will meet a variety of ghosts -- "man-shaped stains on the bright air" -- and angels who speak with Scottish accents.
Each character -- the self-righteous, husband-crushing wife; the "plain man" who only wants his "rights"; the cruel boss; the outraged cynic who sees the world as a tourist trap; the degenerate tormented by his own lustful inclination in the shape of a small red lizard -- comes to life through Lawton's voice as he walks that fine line between the dramatic and the narrative. He brings the old-fashioned, very literary vocabulary to life, making us contemplate "astronomical distances" so great they "made the solar system itself seem and indoor affair."
Lighting a show about symbolic darkness and the "radiant abyss" is no small task, and Janet Embree's lighting, especially at the end, is very effective.
Lawton, his face painted a Beckett-clown white, armed onstage with nothing more than backdrop draperies and a stool, transforms himself, first into the man imagining all this, and then into the variety of people and creatures the man encounters in his dark-night-of-the-soul dream.
These theatrical transformations echo the spiritual transformations Lewis is writing about, making the decision to adapt The Great Divorce to the stage an appropriate and meaningful choice rather than an arbitrary indulgence. Performance literalizes the figurative; it shows us how a man can change.
One man, but many characters, expounding on the route to heaven
Douglas J. Keating
Philadelphia Inquirer Critic (2005)
The narrator of The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis takes a strange bus ride that sends him from a dreary, rainy city of eternal twilight up through the cloud-laden sky to a place of eternal light and the promise of better things to come. Yes, we are talking about a journey from hell, which looks pretty much like Earth at its most dismal, to heaven -- or at least the entry to paradise. But the simple, fantastical structure is deceptive. Although Lewis wrote the still-popular Narnia Chronicles for youngsters, The Great Divorce, which local actor Anthony Lawton has adapted and is presenting in a solo show produced by Lantern Theater, is hardly a fanciful children's story about a bus that flies. Instead, it's a piece in which the foremost literary Christian apologist of the last century puts forth his opinion of what it may take for a person to enter the kingdom of heaven.
That's Lewis' ultimate purpose, but he conveys his religious views in such evocative, observant writing, and Lawton does such of fine job of presenting the many characters and emotions of the story, that even those who are not in sympathy with Lewis' beliefs should find The Great Divorce engrossing theatre. (The running time, just over an hour, also helps.)
Lewis contends that to enter heaven, a person must acknowledge and shed the bad behavior that made others on Earth unhappy. It's a very Christian view of confession, redemption and rebirth, but Lewis also makes it clear that one needn't wait till the heavenly gates come into view. One can and should try to change in this life.
By showing flawed humans unwilling to alter their ways, even though it means they are denied entrance to heaven, Lewis demonstrates graphically how difficult -- nay, nearly impossible -- it is for people to change. It's a sobering view that feeds into the deeply felt Christian despair that Lewis evokes in the final moments of the story.
Lawton has adapted other works by Lewis to the stage, and his affinity for the author's views informs and deepens his always intense acting style. He presents the many characters of the piece colorfully. They have a real individuality and provide a sense of the lonely separation from others that Lewis sees as inherent to the human condition.
If excellent, passionate performance in the cause of Christian doctrine can get an actor to heaven's entry, Lawton has a place waiting for him on Lewis' bus.
A C.S. Lewis adaptation
Julia M. Klein
Philadelphia Inquirer Critic (1998)
The Mirror Theatre Company, which is presenting an original adaptation of C.S. Lewis' fabulist novel The Great Divorce, is really Anthony Lawton
That may be all you need to know: The Temple-educated Lawton, apparently recovered from his 24-hour stint in Brat Productions' The Bald Soprano, authored this adaptation and is its only performer. In the best tradition of one-man shows, Lawton (in white face) quickly makes us forget that he is only one man. Adopting a range of British accents and demeanors, he sharply portrays a variety of characters -- including, most memorably, a woman who makes her husband's life a living hell.
Lawton describes the piece as "the journey of Clive, a hapless professor, who takes a bus ride from hell to heaven" -- and who then must decide whether to stay. The truth is, both the geography and iconography of Lewis' fantastical world are somewhat difficult to comprehend on first viewing.
Even as Lawton immerses us deeply in Lewis' utopian and dystopian imaginings, we struggle to situate ourselves, both spatially and morally. The nearest parallel I could summon was to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, in which other-worldly visions also serve didactic, Christian ends.
However tangled the story's threads, Lawton is mesmerizing -- fully deserving the standing ovation he received Tuesday night.
POSTED BY UWISHUNU.COM, January, 2008
Seemingly in-synch with the Christmas season, the Lantern Theater Company’s one-man stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ short story “The Great Divorce” brings philosophical broodings on the Christian afterlife to Philadelphia audiences . . .
Anthony Lawton’s stage version of C.S. Lewis’ pieces have become a staple of the Lantern Theater Company over the holidays and this engagement — a limited run until January 4th — is no exception. Lawton commands the minimalist stage and subtle (and not-so-subtle) lighting cues only serve to assist Lawton’s storytelling abilities.
So what’s it about? Pagan, Judaic and Christian mythologies are all delved into during one gentleman’s long and unpleasant bus ride from a little town called Hell to a strange new place called Heaven.
You wouldn’t be wrong in expecting Rod Serling to pop up in a corner, smoking a cigarette, explaining how for the next half an hour you’ll be paying a visit to “The Twilight Zone”, as this is exactly the kind of interesting philosophical/theological debate that would have been framed by a bus ride on the iconic ’50s television show. In fact, Lawton does a great job throughout of keeping the audience not just interested but enraptured by his passionate storytelling — perfect for the Christmas season.
BROAD STREET REVIEW
Amid a thundering rainstorm, a wretched academician finds himself alone in a deserted town whose center seems unreachable no matter how long he walks toward it, because the town’s selfish inhabitants are constantly expanding its boundaries by moving to its outer limits in order to avoid each other. The scene could be America’s atomized suburbs of 2007, where everyone gets what they want (except a community) and everyone wonders why they’re unhappy; in fact, it’s C.S. Lewis’s 1946 vision— part Dante, part Kafka, part Freud— of the afterlife as a place where souls are condemned to heaven or hell not by God but by their own psychological baggage. Here the departed are free to move back and forth between the physical heaven and hell— since, after all, some folks are miserable even in Paris while others find joy even in Detroit.
This adaptation of the Lewis novel, brilliantly conceived and performed by Anthony Lawton, vividly evokes a succession of surreal scenes (without benefit of any scenery or props) as well as a broad range of characters who speak in many dialects. My favorites include a henpecking wife who, having driven her husband away, yearns for the burden of setting him straight again, but on her own terms (“I must be given a free hand”); a curmudgeon who finds hell boring because it lacks fire, brimstone and devils with pitchforks; and a cautious soul who must summon the courage to excise the worst of his demons, with whom he has grown all too comfortable.
Lawton's preoccupation with the psychological nature of heaven and hell begs the question of what happens in the afterlife to people who feel perfectly fine about themselves (Osama bin Laden, say, or George W. Bush) but cause real physical damage to others. (In one interlude, a murderer winds up in heaven, much to his victim's consternation.) But this is a minor quibble. Lawton's one-man, one-act play of just 75 minutes constitutes as intelligent and provoking an evening as I’ve spent at the theater in a long time; it’s often devastatingly funny as well. As performed during the week of Gerald Ford’s death, it also provides a cogent explanation as to why Richard Nixon remained in hell even when he reached the White House, and why Ford remained in heaven even when he left it.
Incidentally, The Great Divorce demonstrates the benefits that accrue when an actor writes his own material— at least, when the actor's interests extend beyond the narrow world of the theater. (For more thoughts on entertainers' infatuation with themselves, see my review of Chicago.) I haven't encountered Lawton before (I missed the Arden Theatre's recent A Prayer For Owen Meany), but I'll watch for his name in the future, and so should you.
Published: Dec 20, 2006
From THE BROAD STREET REVIEW, by Cameron Kelsall, 12/16/18
As December 25 creeps closer, you might think another Christmas Carol is the last thing you need to see. Well, dear readers, think again. Lantern Theater Company’s one-person adaptation — devised by actor Anthony Lawton, set and lighting maven Thom Weaver, and sound designer Christopher Colucci — blows the dust off the familiar Dickens tale, revealing fresh, invigorating layers of meaning.
A virtuosic solo performer, Lawton has turned monology into a cottage industry. He’s particularly known for a successful series of shows adapted from the works of C.S. Lewis. He brings the same level of verbal wit and engaging, uncomplicated storytelling to A Christmas Carol. He marries the messages of Dickens’s holiday fable — redemption, renewal, and fellowship — to a narrative structure that simultaneously upholds and subverts our expectations of this familiar material.
Pour one out for Marley
Lawton’s unnamed narrator arrives onstage warbling “We Need a Little Christmas” from Jerry Herman’s Mame. He resembles a tramp clown in white makeup, wearing costume designer Kierceton Keller's tattered morning coat and patched pants. He opens not with Dickens’s famous first sentence — “Marley was dead, to begin with” — but with the tipple of a flask. Clearly, this is not your grandfather’s Christmas Carol.
It’s not your grandchild’s Christmas Carol either. Although this version can and should be enjoyed by the young people in your life, Lawton doesn’t pander exclusively to the rosier elements of the story. He isn’t afraid to jump headlong into the darker, thornier matters at hand — nor is Weaver afraid to plunge the theater into full darkness, in a series of chilling lighting cues.
The battle for a soul
When we do meet Ebenezer Scrooge, he isn’t the crusty, cantankerous figure familiar from other popular adaptations. Lawton describes him as “a kind of cannibal who ate people alive,” a portrait that becomes vivid in his interactions with charity collectors, street urchins, and of course his kindhearted clerk, Bob Cratchit. This sets up a battle for a soul that needs saving, and for once, the outcome doesn’t seem blissfully clear from the start.
Scrooge’s growth takes on a fresh resonance in this light, and his flashbacks to happier Christmas days with the Ghost of Christmas Past are newly moving. When Scrooge and his sister Fan box-step in a cold classroom to “The Holly and the Ivy,” you see two mistreated children clinging to each other for comfort. Colucci’s sound design repeats this carol throughout the performance, and it takes on a haunting dimension.
Scrooge’s first blush of love with former fiancée Belle holds the promise of a long, contented life. Their eventual separation caused my eyes to well — and Belle’s cold assertion that a golden idol has replaced her in Scrooge’s estimation shows that Lawton won’t shy away from the novel’s strong anticapitalist ethos.
Lawton’s narration effectively moves back and forth in time, incorporating current and familiar references. He compares the Ghost of Christmas Present’s stature to “two Shaqs and a Manute Bol,” effortlessly producing a towering image. He references Reading Terminal Market, Isgro’s, and DiBruno Brothers in ways that don’t feel like civic pandering. He quotes Hamlet to demonstrate the depths of Scrooge’s depravity — upon hearing that “there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” his response would center on the denial of an afterlife and the derision of philosophy as a fake major.
A reprieve from pageantry
As the action moves through the spirit realm — with its familiar detours to the Cratchits’ meager Christmas feast and Scrooge’s austere funeral — we sense Scrooge’s awakening to humanity in ways that feel authentic and immediate. The sweat from Lawton’s physically limber performance causes some of his heavily applied makeup to fade. Whether or not this is intentional, it serves as a good metaphor for Scrooge’s journey: He gradually sheds the mask he’s constructed to keep himself cold, hard, and alone. He rejoins the human race with a full and open heart.
Staged versions of A Christmas Carol often center around pageantry: holiday songs belted at full voice, choruses of children and community members, ornate costumes and hulking sets. The version created by Lawton, Colucci, and Weaver eschews that all. It privileges simple storytelling, with a clear intent and a strong message, in the hands of a first-rate performer. I have to imagine that Dickens — one of the greatest plot-weavers of all time — would be proud.
Memo to Lantern: Make this a holiday tradition.
From RECLINING STANDARDS, by D.A. Fox, 12/17/18
To see Lantern Theater’s marvelous, even revelatory A Christmas Carol is like visiting a funhouse hall of mirrors: everywhere you look you’ll see another Anthony Lawton, one more dazzling than the next. For Lawton is the adapter here (in collaboration with Christopher Colucci, who also provides the sound design, and Thom Weaver, whose lighting is exceptionally evocative), as well the sole performer. The multiplicity of personae doesn’t stop there. In each guise, he contains multitudes.
In his writer-role, Lawton has simultaneously been faithful to Dickens’s perennially beloved original and slyly upended it. Large sections of the script are faithfully quoted, including pretty much every major episode. But surrounding the narrative is a commentary that both celebrates and plays with A Christmas Carol.
You’ll note it at the very beginning, when Lawton winks at Scrooge’s famous expletive (“Bah. Humbug,” of course), encouraging the audience to mentally substitute more profane and current epithets when they hear it. Because, as Lawton pointedly observes, Scrooge really is a miserable human being—a kind of cannibal, actually.
Importantly, what we are meant to understand here is that the sentiment of A Christmas Carol is equally balanced by its harshness. Also, that while we may be watching it in another country 175 years after it was written, the tale has deep connections to our current world. In one of Lawton’s most inspired riffs, he embellishes the grand recounting of delicious holiday foods, inserting references to a catalog of venerable Philadelphia purveyors: Di Bruno, Isgro’s, Termini Brothers, and more.
As an actor, Lawton likewise lives vividly within A Christmas Carol and observes sardonically from outside it. Costumed in a shabby frock coat and top hat (the costume is by Kierceton Keller), his face painted clownish white, he might almost be a figure from a Currier and Ives’ holiday print—but there is something far deeper there, an unsettling mix of sweet and sinister (think Chaplin’s Little Tramp, remade for today). Amidst the merest suggestion of scenery (a podium serves multiple functions), and with balletic grace, Lawton embodies many of the story’s fabled characters, while always retaining his narrator persona.
The net effect is to take a familiar tale that time and acquaintance have rendered perilously close to kitsch and bring it electrifyingly to life. I’ve never seen the story of the three ghosts feel more spine-tingly scary. I’ve rarely found Dickens’s quirky humor register as so genuinely funny. And maybe most important for A Christmas Carol’s ultimate message—I had thought I was inured to the image of Tiny Tim’s crutch standing alone in the corner, but unexpectedly I teared up when Lawton, with masterly understatement, came to the passage.
This is very much A Christmas Carol for adults, though thoughtful youngsters—especially those with an interest in theater—will surely love it. Just make sure you go to the right place! This show is produced by Lantern Theater but presented at a wonderfully intimate black box space on the Drexel campus, near 34thand Market.
God bless us, every one! But especially Tony Lawton, who has given Philadelphia a gorgeous holiday gift—one that I hope returns year after year.
from WHYY by Howard Shapiro, 12/17/18
Lantern Theater has a Christmas gift, in the form of a finely considered reworking of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The storyteller is the theater artist Anthony Lawton, who joins forces with lighting and scenic designer Thom Weaver and sound designer Christopher Colucci — three powerhouses in local professional theater with individual track records over the years.
Their intimate, smooth production of Dickens’ novella, adapted by Lawton, uses a good deal of the original, venturing out of the story at times for some commentary from Lawton. He cites the retro quality of the phrase “Bah! Humbug!” and asks the members of the audience to replace it in their minds with something more current and meaningful. After Lawton tells of Scrooge dismissing a man who seeks charity for workhouses, he explains what a London workhouse was and why it was a place of despair. At one point, Lawton quotes C.S. Lewis on the subject of fear. (He has also adapted Lewis’ work for the stage.)
It all blends seamlessly with the story, which Lawton amends slightly and smartly in this one-man production. His Ghost of Christmas Present, for instance, takes Scrooge magically onto the London streets early Christmas morning, where they observe the happy rush before the day begins in earnest — people scurrying in the shops and making last-minute food purchases in the markets for Christmas dinner. And in a second we’re out of the crowded streets of London and into the Reading Terminal Market and the stalls along Ninth Street. In Lawton’s excited telling, it makes perfect sense.
He accomplishes this with little more than a lectern as a prop. He pushes it to one part of the bare wooden stage and, overturned, it’s the bed Scrooge sleeps in when he’s visited by his late partner Marley, who comes to introduce Scrooge to the nightmare that will be his transformation. The lighting and sound designs by Weaver and Colucci, respectively, become key as the 90-minute show moves forward with images of ghosts and bells and crowds mentioned in its narrative.
Lawton’s role goes all the way back to Dickens himself, who liked to give public readings of “A Christmas Carol” and, as the Lantern’s Meghan Winch writes in the program notes, even whittled the novella down to a reading he could give in 90 minutes. More recently, Dickens’ great-great-grandson, the British actor Gerald Dickens, has given readings of “A Christmas Carol” in historic places in the United States, including the Philadelphia region.
The Lantern version has several rich moments — two of my favorites are the appearance of Marley in Scrooge’s bed chamber, which Lawton offers up in stirring fashion, and that little Christmas morning tour, during which you can almost smell the roasts in the ovens all over London (and Philadelphia).
Costume designer Kierceton Keller dresses Lawton in a disheveled red morning coat and tattered tan pants, with a fluffy cravat falling down his shirt. His face is white-washed in grease paint and his nose is a clownish red — a makeup effect that seems out of place until the story begins to pump and in the stark lighting, Lawton looks much like we imagine a ghost. It’s a tremendously effective image in a new take on a story that’s inextricable with the holiday and the season.
The Screwtape Letters at The Lantern
Philadelphia City Paper
Thursday, January 10th, 2008
posted by Mark Cofta
How do you make a religious treatise fun? Set it in Hell, and teach indirectly through the ironic voice of a middle-management devil instructing a minion how to steer a man away from "The Enemy." The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis (of renewed Chronicles of Narnia fame), seems an unlikely work for stage adaptation, but actor-writer Tony Lawton’s energetic version succeeds.
Lawton, who made an engaging monologue out of Lewis’s The Great Divorce last year, enlivens Screwtape’s letters to his novice Wormwood with interludes featuring Genevieve Perrier as Toadpipe, Screwtape’s icy-cold Bond Girl assistant. Each time she delivers a report from Wormwood, she and Screwtape engage in some sort of combat: acrobatic physical battles, a fire-eating contest, a ferociously fun tap duel, and even whip-cracking sexual games. These are all surprising, spectacular encounters, the thrill heightened by the small space (the squeamish should avoid the first row).
All this action spices the meat of the matter, which is an often clever and insightful exploration of the idea of Love as humanity’s divine trait. Screwtape instructs Wormwood to battle against it with all sorts of temptations - the biggest of which, sounding very modern in its identification of the evils of television and video games, is idleness. The obstacle to the empty, tedious life Wormwood shapes for his victim is genuine pleasure - so, don’t fear, this isn’t another "just say no" lecture.
Screwtape confesses, however, to not understanding Love; it must be, he insists, merely The Enemy’s ploy. Lawton shows this cocky devil beginning to glimpse greater ideas, making what in lesser hands would be merely recitation into powerful realization.
Missing The Screwtape Letters out of distaste for pumped-up election-year piety would be a mistake; though Lawton scores an easy chuckle when Screwtape hangs a sneering Dick Cheney portrait, the play skewers today’s preening politicians regardless of party with venomous glee. (Some ironic commentary may be unintentional as Lewis couldn’t have foreseen our current administration when he had Screwtape complain of "a failure of our intelligence department.")
Go for the showy pyrotechnics like Perrier’s increasingly slinky outfits, the actors’ daring choreography, even the witty PowerPoint presentation that illustrates Screwtape’s letters . . . and stay for the fascinating rumination on contemporary morals through Lawton’s all-too-human devil.
The Screwtape Letters is a play everyone will enjoy
By R.B. Strauss
As a Jew, I wandered into The Screwtape Letters, based on the novella by noted Christian writer C.S. Lewis (he of Narnia fame), not knowing what to expect. Boredom? Befuddlement? An excuse for a nice nap? I was thoroughly entertained, and yes, engaged. True, some of my interest was because of my unfamiliarity with Christianity, but for the most part, the show’s success was due to the performances by Anthony Lawton, who also adapted the work, and his costar and basically silent partner, Genevieve Perrier. They make a dynamic duo indeed.
Though Lawton handles most of the speechifying, this is not a long, drawn-out monologue. Rather it is a series of epistles fired off by Screwtape (Lawton), a mid-level demon in Hell, to his underling and nephew, Wormwood, on the whys and wherefores of seducing a single soul to the dark side. Punctuating each dictation, Toadpipe (Ms. Perrier) returns with a follow-up missive from Wormwood and then the fun begins in earnest in the form of nifty dance numbers and other bits of business that rely on timing and sexual tension in equal measure. Oh, and both cut loose with solos to boot.
The work itself is just as vibrant, without a scrap of verbal flab or pedantic proselytizing. Screwtape comes across as someone who is just plain tired of it all, and since when do the jailers become the jailed? Indeed, this poor functionary in the vast corporate bureaucracy that is the Underworld is trapped in his own circumstances, though I wondered where he goes when five o’clock rolls around. He explicates evil thoroughly, and it cuts across all faiths in its laserlike precision and simple delineation. There is also a purely existential component to swearing a soul to sin in that Screwtape offers up the same bit of business that Sartre did: Hell is other people. Indeed, the micro and the macro are given the same attention. A petty annoyance with one’s mother can set one on the road to damnation just as easily as if one were a war criminal.
It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, either. In fact, the more prosperous you are, the better, as there is a whole world of devilish delights that one can afford without blinking an eye. Here, I was reminded of Wordsworth’s famous poem, The World Is Too Much With Us, with its classic image—“Getting and spending.” Indeed, one tonic against evil is just what the Romantic poets offered, a nice stroll to appreciate Nature. Nature is genuine and real, whereas so much else that embodies temptation is fake.
However, Screwtape doesn’t have all the answers. He is certain that God and His minions are just as manipulative and small-minded, yet there is something that he doesn’t get, that he can’t get, and it is killing him. As to what that is, you’ll have to see the play. Oh, and a miracle happened to me during the matinee, in that when a tune by Led Zeppelin rocked the house, not only was I not disgusted by a band I’ve hated from the moment I heard them way back in 1969, but I actually enjoyed the song. Who’da thunk it?
JANUARY 11, 2008
Tap dancing! Martial arts! Fire swallowing! S&M!
Is it the latest show by the Peek-A-Boo Revue?
No. It's the Lantern Theater Company's revival production of The Screwtape Letters, adapted from the book by C.S. Lewis by, and starring, Anthony Lawton. As with all of C.S. Lewis's works, Screwtape has a decidedly Christian slant— in this case, speaking on the ideas of faith and morality, and how their abandonment could mean eternal damnation— but the story and execution can still be enjoyable to the "heathen" audience.
The book is composed of a series of letters written by Screwtape, an upper-level demon (as far as the "lowerarchy" is concerned) to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter sent to earth for the sake of corrupting a young man's soul, such that when he dies, he'll be sent to hell. The play takes these letters and makes them into a ninety-minute lecture on good and evil, and how to cultivate the latter while pretending to be the former. That description might sound a little boring, but the production is anything but, thanks to Lawton's dynamic performance. So persuasive a Screwtape is he that at some points, you even find yourself agreeing with him. "Yes," you find yourself saying, "love is a construct!" Probably not what C.S. Lewis had in mind, but effective nonetheless.
Lawton is helped by the always-impeccable Geneviève Perrier. Usually more of a girl-next-door (as in the Lantern's The Lonesome West and Mum's Fantoccini Brothers Return), her mostly-silent role in Screwtape is dirty-hot, sexy in that kind of "I can't introduce you to my parents" kind of way. Playing Toadpipe, Screwtape's snarky secretary (say that five times fast!), Perrier enters between scenes and handles live fire (literally handles it), a giant bull whip, and some pretty serious-looking surgical instruments, all the time looking... like she was naughty enough in life to land herself a spot in Hell.
And though Lawton himself is a fantastic Screwtape, it's the entre-scenes with Lawton and Perrier that often steal the show. The monologues, although interesting, can get a little dull after a while (through no fault of Lawton's acting, but perhaps through fault of his adapting), and the dance numbers and pantomimed scenes rouse the audience from their theological navel-gazing and ready them for more. Do they have anything to do with the plot? Not much. But without them, The Screwtape Letters would feel incomplete and unsatisfying. Bravo to Lawton for anticipating this and rectifying it, giving the audience a complete, cohesive production. It's obvious why it was such a success that the Lantern decided to revive it.
January 7th, 2008
The Screwtape Letters: In Review
Posted by uwishunu in Theatre
Post by Mary van Ogtrop
Now that the most wonderful, family-filled and gift-giving time of the year is behind us, it’s the perfect time to get demonic with The Screwtape Letters.
Based on C.S. Lewis’ 1942 novel – categorized as Christian fiction – The Screwtape Letters is a sexy, comical and often explosive (read: fire-eating) exploration of the seven deadly sins.
Anthony Lawton, recently named Philadelphia’s “Best One-Man Theatre” by City Paper, stars as Screwtape, a mid-level demon trying to mentor his nephew Wordwood, a “newbie” demon, in the ways of tempting a soul into a lustful and debaucherous life. Genevieve Perrier is his chain-smoking, tight-lipped secretary – and a bit of a temptress in her own right.
Lawton is incredible in his own adaptation of the novel, spinning out Screwtape’s monologues with the devilish stoicism of a master rhetorician. But all Screwtape’s wit and witticisms don’t add up to much when he’s stuck in, well, Hell. None of his musings on double standards, self-centeredness and all-out hedonism can help him understand the Christian notion of love. And that drives him crazy.
Lawton and Perrier light up St. Stephen’s Theater with truly interactive (and very athletic) performances, where multimedia displays inform the narrative and techno music or Led Zeppelin can lead to a dance number at any moment. Fair warning: some of the imagery in the play can be a little unsettling. But that’s sin, baby.
The Screwtape Letters: The Devil You Say
By Matthew Ray
Updated: Jan 08, 2008
Posted to: Concert/Show Review
The Lantern Theater Company stages an adaptation of C.S. Lewis' novel, The Screwtape Letters, which chronicles a demon's efforts to mentor his protégé in the art of evil.
If you’ve spent the last couple of New Years ignoring your resolutions and indulging your vices, you should go see The Lantern Theater Company’s production of "The Screwtape Letters" at St. Stephen’s Theater at 10th and Ludlow.
An adaptation of the C.S. Lewis novel, "The Screwtape Letters" is a dramatic look at moral downfall through the letters of a demon, Screwtape, to his protégé Wormwood. With each letter, Screwtape mentors the demonling Wormwood on the tricks of the soul-snatching trade. How to use lust and greed, pride and self-righteousness to turn the human “patient” away from “The Enemy” (God).
Anthony Lawton’s performance as Screwtape is devilishly wonderful. He does double demonic duty not only as the lead, he also adapted the novel for the stage. Joining Lawton is Genevieve Perrier as Toadpipe, a sultry secretary ghoul. In between scenes the terrible two gnash the seven deadly sins in vignettes ranging from tap dancing to fire eating, with a sprinkle of light S&M thrown in for good measure.
Despite a large dollop of humor, this show isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a stark reminder of the vanities of life, and a deep and unabashed look at personal and secret lies. Theater for the spirit, perhaps? Maybe. It can be funny in places, it can be grim in others, and you might find yourself a bit reflective when you leave. But how often do you actually get to travel to Hell and back without getting burned?
Where sex and violence needs spicing up
By Toby Zinman
For The Inquirer
Posted on Fri, Jan. 4, 2008
Lantern Theater presents the reprise of Anthony Lawton's adaptation and performance of The Screwtape Letters. If you like 90-minute sermons - albeit cunning ones - on the Christian tenet of God's love, this show is for you. If you like good theater but find smug homilies on the nature of evil tedious, you'll have some good acting to watch if you can stay awake.
C.S. Lewis, best known for The Chronicles of Narnia, which are also Christian allegories, is, apparently, Lawton's man; he adapted and performed Lewis' The Great Divorce in 2006. Making a religious treatise stage-worthy is a mighty feat, and Lawton, with the agile help of Genevieve Perrier, spices up what is, essentially, an immense monologue using the usual seasonings: sex and violence.
The show at St. Stephen's Theatre opens in an office in Hell; Screwtape, a middle management devil, has the job of overseeing Wormwood, a young devil assigned to corrupt a human being. This novice's reports are delivered by a hostile cutie-pie (Perrier) - who does not speak until near the end, but who appears in various costumes to sneer, seduce, tango, and sensually writhe. Her two battles with Screwtape - especially the ferocious tap dance - are the best of these interludes, while the sexy scenes are fairly embarrassing in their lack of subtlety. There are various circus acts - performed in amazingly close quarters - involving fire-eating and whip cracking (at which point a small prayer to Whomever might be a good idea if you're sitting on the front row).
The monologue is comprised of Screwtape's letters, replies to Wormwood's reports. In them, he explains the processes of corruption used to achieve the desired goal: damnation. "The safest road to Hell is the gradual one - soft underfoot, no sudden turnings." He deconstructs hypocrisy, family, and boredom, but remains stymied by the mystery of God's love of mankind. The assumption that morality is a function of Christian theology might be seen as particularly irksome, immersed as we are in the current swamp of religious electioneering.
The set features a screen for a PowerPoint presentation; we see photographs of the sweet-faced "subject" and his mother, paintings by Bosch, Dali, and Fuseli, charts illustrating the relation of the human will to intellect and fantasy, headlines announcing the start of World War II, and a variety of other visual aids. A photograph of Dick Cheney oversees it all from the wall. Stuff certainly does happen, but not in this play.
John Smith column 7/10/10: 'Screwtape' performances devilishly amusing
The Reading Eagle
Originally Published: 7/10/2010
The Screwtape Letters" of C.S. Lewis, featuring Max McLean, can be seen in an extended run off-Broadway these days.
They were also on view, featuring Philadelphia actor Anthony Lawton, last week at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in a one-night stand, a phrase to Screwtape's liking.
McLean's interpretation is very, very good ("devilishly good," said Christianity Today). Lawton's is even better.
Both McLean and Lawton employ a charming young woman as secretary/mailgirl. McLean's spends a lot of time climbing up a pole, but Lawton's, Kim Carson, is a really hot number as a combination magician, exotic dancer, temptress and dominatrix.
She joins Lawton in spirited scenes between each letter, emphasizing the tension as this "very experienced devil," as Lewis described him, tries to advise his bumbling nephew, Wormwood, on the fine art of stealing souls for hell in early World War II.
Lawton, whose interaction with Carson was called stunning by one Berks pastor, utilizes a screen for some Power Points and relevant pictures. Several anachronistic features add to the experience, such as referring to the temptation value of "The Bridges of Madison County," and replacing Lewis' line about "staring at a dead fire in a cold room" with "staring at a TV."
And he got his biggest laugh when Screwtape's pin-up girl is revealed to be Sarah Palin.
Among Screwtape's advice which stood out:
On how to stir up discord between a young man and his mother: Keep his mind on the inner life, thus off the elementary duties; make sure his prayers are innocuous; keep him aware of her habits that irritate him; have him judge her but never himself by tone and content of words.
Stress Puritanism.The word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last century because by its use "we rescue annually thousands from temperance, sobriety and chastity."
Don't allow the man life's real pleasures like a good book or a walk in the country.
Remember the road to hell is a gradual one; "Murder is no better than cards if cards will do the trick."
Guide people away from possible mates with whom spiritually healthy and happy marriages are most likely.
Screwtape's main complaint is he can't find out what the Enemy (God) is really up to, because he can't believe "he really loves the human vermin and desires their freedom and continued existence."
"Lewis' devils are stymied by love," says Lawton in the program notes. "The devils are comic, because they are too dumb to understand love.
"The unsettling question Lewis then asks is, are we smarter than his clowns?"
Contact John W. Smith: 610-371-5007 or email@example.com
Philadelphia City Paper
Go. It's that simple, really. And call now. If you don't get your tickets fast -- it's only being performed Saturdays at 10:30pm, and Sundays and Mondays at 7:30pm -- you'll miss on of the most entertaining and uproarious performances in all Philadelphia (and probably New York, for that matter). The Devil and Billy Markham, a comic monologue in rhymed couplets, is that rare and remarkable union of dazzling writing (by Shel Silverstein) and acting (by Tony Lawton ) that makes you feel the shiver of theater down to your toes.
The Devil and Billy Markham is the Faustian tale of a small-town musician who loses a sucker's bet with Satan. Billy gets bounced to hell, heaven and back again to sort out the mess he's made and enact a fitting revenge. Along the way, he gets roasted on a spit and basted with spider's blood; plays 8-ball with God for a ticket to glory; and crashes a wedding party where Gertrude Stein hits on Grandma Moses while Vladimir Nabokov and Errol Flynn argue over the same teenager. And so on -- to reveal any more would risk spoiling the fun of Silverstein's wicked scheme.
The Devil and Billy Markham is not a stand-up act. Lawton inhabits each of his characters -- a narrator, Billy, the devil, God, an "agent" named Scuzzy Sleezy -- with such precision and truth that it is impossible to imagine another actor ever performing the piece. His frequent shifts in character appear effortless; his focus is razor-sharp. When the laughter subsides, Lawton finds drama, suspense, and tragedy in Billy's hapless, hilarious journey. He simply owns it.
First seen in last year's Fringe Festival, The Devil and Billy Markham has been revived at he Second Stage by the Fictitious Theatre Company. There's barely a set, and there's only one prop (if this was a couplet, you'd call it a mop). But Lawton and Silverstein make quite a pair, and they conjure their magic with devilish dare.
Philadelphia City Paper
Anthony Lawton greets us offering soda and beer, an appropriately friendly start to Heresy, a deeply personal exploration of his spiritual development launched by the frank realization that “the most Christian people I know are non-Christians.” Lawton holds back nothing (except some real names) as he passionately chronicles his lifelong struggles with rigid Catholicism, raging libido and the guilt both inspire. Old yearbook pictures and identification with The Incredible Hulk lead to many laughs, making the headier discussions of theology, St. Francis and C.S. Lewis (with nods to Lawton’s acclaimed adaptations of Lewis’ Great Divorce and Screwtape Letters) easier to grasp from this likable local actor, whether you’re Catholic or heathen. —Mark Cofta
Philadelphia Performing Arts Examiner
"Heresy" written and performed by Anthony Lawton
A 5-year-old boy swings his lunch box at his friend with the force of a weapon. Decades later, he is still horrified by what he did and wonders why he did such a cruel and violent thing.
That 5-year-old was Anthony Lawton, author and performer of the autobiographical, one-man show “Heresy.” (Mirror Theatre Company, Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts., September 4-6 at 8pm.) If you think there’s lots of talk about God and religion in this play, well---you’re right. But this is a hilarious, brutally honest, insightful, clever, engaging, edgy, terrifying look at one person’s struggle to understand God, good, evil, order, chaos, and how to get along with and fit in with the other humans, especially women. And, it attempts to answer the question: Can you be a Christian and not believe that Jesus was the Son of God?
With cleverly chosen photos projected on a large screen above and behind him and minimal, well-chosen props—like the plaid lunch box that becomes a weapon, Lawton creates the universe of his journey from the jealous kindergartner swinging that lunch box to the class clown who liked to make people laugh to the beginnings of his search for answers about God, good and evil in the works of C.S. Lewis to his days as a football player, his sexual awakening, his discovery of the ‘science of God’ at Notre Dame University, his disappointment with charitable work vaccinating dogs and cats against rabies in Ecuador, his catastrophic failures with the women in his life, his success as an actor, playwright, and interpreter of C.S.Lewis’s works, and his eventual loss of faith and thoughts of suicide.
Lawton knows his craft as a playwright and he is a formidable talent as an actor. He makes every word, gesture and incident rich and potent as he guides the audience through his passionate, intense, sharply comic, vividly painful and ultimately hopeful journey. Lawton is such a consummate artist that the play is entertaining and draws you in even at its darkest moments.
“Heresy” is a work in progress, even the title is a ‘working title’. After the performance, Lawton held a talk-back with the audience. He wanted to hear their take on how the themes of the play come across and if the events and people he so vividly brings to life work well expressing the struggles fought and insights gained thus far in his journey.
You don’t have to be Catholic or even Christian to love this play—just human. Anyone who has struggled with anything at all about finding their place in this world and making some sense of things will be moved and gloriously entertained by “Heresy”. This premiere, with Lawton’s masterful performance, is an event not to be missed.
by A.D. Amorosi, For The Inquirer, Posted: May 20, 2010
From his Mirror Theatre Company's mission to the shows he adapts from Christian apologist C.S. Lewis' most theological works, Philadelphia actor, director and writer Anthony Lawton is dedicated to the good and the godly.
"At the end of the day, everything I do is dedicated to God," says Lawton, currently performing his suave adaptation of Lewis' tale of temptation, The Screwtape Letters, at Lantern Theater Company.
While dedication to anything close to holiness is less than commonplace in the art of recent decades, Lawton, 43, operates with a devout ardor. But don't mistake him for a saint.
"Often I'm selfish, don't succeed in getting priorities straight, or choose to do the easy thing before the right or charitable," he says. "But I think of myself as a creature of the God who made me, and that my life and my actions belong to him."
Though he has performed Lewis' Christian writings repeatedly for Lantern Theater since 2002 (three go-rounds each for Screwtape and The Great Divorce), not everything he acts out is faith-based. California born, with a degree from Notre Dame and a master's of fine arts from Temple, he is proud of his mad wise Feste in Twelfth Night and stormy Austin in True West (both for Lantern) as well as George in Of Mice and Men at the Walnut, and his fine Friar Laurence in the Arden's recent Romeo and Juliet.
Also notable are his absurdist roles in such Fringe Festival faves as Brat Theater's first run at A 24-Hour Bald Soprano and 1812 Productions' take on Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, which he cowrote.
Credit the intensity of his lithe yet bullish physical presence, world-weary eyes, and rakish smile for his believability in those notably secular roles.
Still, as a Catholic actor and writer, he wanted more: "I didn't see why theater couldn't be wedded to faith. I thought theater with a Christian perspective would be a breath of fresh air to an audience that was open to it."
First came his Mirror Theatre Company in 1996, producing solo or small-cast shows concerning the eternal. Lawton had begun thinking about the Mirror in grad school. "After all," he says, "theater and religion have similar missions: They're trying to make sense of life, to impart hope and purpose where possible, and state the truth about what it means to be human."
Lawton called his company the Mirror in homage both to Hamlet's observation that theater holds a mirror to nature, and to St. Paul's assertion, "Now we see dimly, as through a mirror, but then we shall see as face to face."
Of the muddle of the human predicament, the confusion and disorientation that follow from mankind's biblical fall from God's grace, he says, "I don't think it's possible to do plays about humanity without addressing this fundamental bafflement."
Lantern first presented Lawton's holy-rolling, raucous takes on Shel Silverstein's The Devil and Billy Markham and Lewis' The Great Divorce in 1999. During Lantern's 2002-03 season, he adapted the dashingly doomy Screwtape Letters.
Lantern artistic director Charles McMahon says, "There's nothing more to the point in theater than the deep examination of the human psyche; the bringing to light of the fugitive secrets of the mind. Tony uses a mercilessly honest examination of his own heart to envision both the greatness of soul to which we can aspire, and the degradation to which we can sink."
Lawton's brutal insights into human frailty are much in evidence in his piercing, painfully funny portrayal of Screwtape, an experienced demon advising his nephew in the fine points of corrupting Christians. McMahon has witnessed the piece evolve and says, "I never fail to see something new and compelling in it."
In the Lantern, Lawton found a home where he can be a collaborator rather than just an artist-for-hire. And in C.S. Lewis (perhaps best-known now for The Chronicles of Narnia), Lawton finds profound and humble understanding of how the psyche works - the stuff of drama.
"That, combined with the richness of his language, struck me as having much in common with the immortal dramatists: Shakespeare, the Greeks. Having had training in classical acting, I was confident that, if I put Lewis on the stage, he'd strike a chord with any open-minded audience."
Part of this optimism stems from Lawton being an old-world gent who leans toward what he sees as old-fashioned trends in writing and thought. "Dickens, Lewis, Tolkien - their sentences were feasts," he says. "Writers today are more influenced by Hemingway than I'd like - too arid, too lonesome. My experience is not nearly as barren as that. Philosophically, our era is under the influence of existentialists, a boring and unimaginative philosophy, and, again, not a faithful reflection of my perception of reality."
His reality is that of a man who grew up Catholic and was, until his mid-30s, "super-orthodox." There still is joy in his feelings about God and Jesus despite a crisis of faith at 36 - one documented eloquently and forcefully in his 2009 autographical Fringe Festival presentation, Heresy. The "one-guy show" discussed failed marriages as well as Lawton's falling away from orthodoxy, which he misses still.
"Tony really took an unflinching and engaging view of the misadventures of his own life with that play," notes McMahon. Lantern will remount Heresy next season.
"I don't have a literal belief in the Jesus story anymore, I'm sad to say, but have a strong belief in the figurative meaning of the Christian myth, and the content of Jesus' teaching," says Lawton quietly. "I think our just and charitable actions are the most real incarnation of God that we can attain."