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On stage, 'Screwtape Letters' becomes 'alive, accessible'

Published: Thursday, March 21 2013 3:25 p.m. MDT

The stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters" is written and directed by Max McLean. For most of the last five years, McLean also played the production's title character. (Gerry Goodstein) The stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters" is written and directed by Max McLean. For most of the last five years, McLean also played the production's title character. (Gerry Goodstein)

While C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” is popularly perceived as “very long and dense and difficult to plow through,” Brent Harris has a different approach to make the master demon’s correspondence entertaining.

“On stage, the book becomes very alive and very present and very accessible,” he says. “That happens not just through the language but also through the emotions and colors and physicality on stage with such a long stream of words.”

In what has been critically described as “a tour de force, spellbinding performance,” Harris brings the role of Screwtape to the Kingsbury Hall stage on Saturday, March 23.

With permission from the Lewis estate, the Fellowship for the Performing Arts first brought a stage version of the book to the New York City stage in 2006, and the production has toured the country at sold-out theaters to much acclaim, including an observation that the show is “a smart, provocative and wickedly funny theatrical adaptation.”

Max McLean (standing) stars as “Screwtape” and Beckley Andrews stars as “Toadpipe” in the stage adaptation of "The Screwtape Letters." (Gerry Goodstein) Max McLean (standing) stars as “Screwtape” and Beckley Andrews stars as “Toadpipe” in the stage adaptation of "The Screwtape Letters." (Gerry Goodstein)

Harris takes on the role that was created and widely performed by Max McLean, who directly assisted him in taking on the challenging part.

“Max has the benefit of playing the role hundreds of time, and that’s something you don’t dismiss. I learned a lot from what he did and then made the role my own,” Harris says.

“My technique was to go in and learn the show as he does it, and then let the role live through my body and my voice. Inevitably, it’s going to become different, just because we are different people. It’s an enormous role, with such a lot of work and a lot of emotion.”

An experienced Shakespearean actor with lead roles in the Bard’s canon, Harris has been asked to stage his own one-man show in the past. “But I’ve never felt like I wanted to be alone on stage,” he explains. “This turned out to be a great way to be in a one-person show without being alone on stage. Srewtape doesn’t interact with the other character onstage, but Wormwood is essential to the production.”

Brent Harris in "The Screwtape Letters." (Scott Suchman) Brent Harris in "The Screwtape Letters." (Scott Suchman)

A satirical novel written in epistolary style, “The Screwtape Letters” offers insights on temptation, pride and how faith overcomes evil forces.

“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,” Screwtape writes.

“The play was generated with a certain belief system, a very Christian point of view,” Harris summarizes. “But it’s not a sermon with easy answers. Theater is most interesting when it’s asking questions. This play is provoking, and it prompts audience members to reflect on their own belief system and it’s very strengthening to many individuals.”

If you go

Brent Harris in "The Screwtape Letters." (Scott Suchman) Brent Harris in "The Screwtape Letters." (Scott Suchman)

What: “The Screwtape Letters”

Where: Kingsbury Hall

When: Saturday March 23, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.

How much: $25-$59

Tickets: kingsburyhall.utah.edu or 801-581-7100

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