The Devil You Know

Photo by Richard Termine

Wednesday night found us at LaMama for THE DEVIL YOU KNOW. Created by award winning playwright and director Ping Chong who has joined forces with marionette artist and composer Erik Sanko and set designer Jessica Grindstaff – also known as Phantom Limb Co. – THE DEVIL YOU KNOW is a modern interpretation of the classic American short story The Devil and Daniel Webster about a poor farmer who sells his soul in exchange for financial prosperity.

The story is told in a straightforward manner, the script is simple and to-the-point. The press release describes it as “a haunting meditation on lost souls, fool’s gold and democracy’s eternal promise for renewal,” which is pretty accurate. The story is told in a folksy idiom with allusions to the current state of financial affairs and the ongoing problems of greed run rampant.

While the script is, at times, perfunctory, the staging is absolutely magical. The overall aesthetic is seamless and evocative of an America that probably never was except in our imagination. The marionettes and bunraku-style puppets, revolving stages, recorded dialogue, original music and multi-media projections all work together to create a homespun Tim Burton American Gothic world.

The revolving houses are an incredibly cool device – they open like magic boxes to reveal the different sets. In between the two houses is a huge tree whose branches hover over the houses creating a canopy in the center of which is a video screen. Maya Ciarrocchi’s video projections really add to the overall magical feel – whether it is images of snow, hail or rain or huge gold coins that cascade down the front of the sets.

But of course it is the marionettes and puppets that give the show a feeling of timelessness. They really come to life and there are plenty of little details to delight the attentive audience – a mouse scampers across a barn floor, a puppet exits one house and enters another invisibly as if the rooms were connected. Benjamin Furiga’s sound design and the music are really great as well – subtly moving the action forward and establishing tone.

The show is billed as being suitable for ages 10 and up and I mean it in a good way when I say it is a great family show. The simplicity of the script, the languid pace and the magic of the marionettes make THE DEVIL YOU KNOW an imaginative entertainment for everyone.

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