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Making a deal with the devil

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By Special to the Monitor

The Los Alamos Little Theatre kicks off the New Year with a brand new show: “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet, the 20th-century Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, novelist and short-story author. The show is coupled with the premiere of “Yogurt Security,” local playwright Robert F. Benjamin’s and Elaine Jarvik’s 10-minute satire on life in Los Alamos and travel under the latest TSA regulations. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” preserves much of the text of Benet’s 1937 short story of the same name because the author himself adapted it into a script for Douglas Moore’s 1938 folk opera. The Little Theatre uses the Benet script sans Douglas Moore’s music. Instead, the production uses devil-themed olios to maintain the theater’s traditional January show composition. A local trio performs “The Devil Went down to Georgia,” among other offerings, says olio coordinator Sheila Schiferl.Many know the classic German legend of Faust who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a life of fame and fortune. Over the years this tale has formed the basis of numerous literary, artistic, musical and even cinematic works by such notable as Christopher Marlowe, Goethe, Thomas Mann, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Oscar Wilde, William Gaddis, Carol Ann Duffy and Charles Gounod. In 1824, Washington Irving wrote a short-story treatment called “The Devil and Tom Walker.” This American version provided the inspiration for Benet’s 20th-century short story. Irving’s version ends with the devil dragging a repentant Tom Walker down to Hell anyway.Benet’s version of this classic legend appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and won the O’Henry award for short story excellence. Set in 1841, the story begins with New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone enduring a seemingly endless streak of bad luck affecting both his farm and personal life. “It’s enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the devil!” exclaims Jabez. And that’s exactly what happens when the devil appears the next day with such a proposition. Stone myopically accepts.After seven years of prosperity and a three-year grace period, the devil finally comes to collect his due at the stroke of midnight on the night of Stone’s wedding to the beautiful Mary.Perhaps evoking the fame and accomplishments of 1930s superstar lawyer Clarence Darrow, Benet mixes fact with fiction when wedding guest and renowned nineteenth-century lawyer/statesman Daniel Webster steps forward to defend the soul of Jabez Stone. The devil relents as long as he himself can choose both judge and jury, and he does as a ghostly array of long-dead American tyrants and villains parade into the makeshift courtroom: Revolutionary War British loyalist Walter Butler, alleged torturer Simon Girty, Wampanoag war chief Metacomet a.k.a. “King Philip,” stern Governor Thomas Dale, “blasphemer” Thomas Morton, Salem witch trial judge Hathorne and even the pirate Edward “Blackbeard” Teach.To this jury of the “damned,” Webster first mentions the simple, good things of life: “the freshness of a fine morning . . . the taste of food when you're hungry . . . the new day that’s every day when you're a child.” With passion, he speaks of America and even the wrongs done there but asserts our country as something new and good, where “everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.” He reminds the jury of their own lives in America and acknowledges that everyone who lives life has gotten “tricked and trapped and bamboozled, but . . . (life) was a great journey.”How does it all resolve? As Tom Walker was, is Jabez Stone also dragged down to Hell by the devil ? Come see the show to find out.Tom (T.J.) Severinghaus directs the talented cast of local favorites in “The Devil and Daniel Webster”: Manny Baca, Rose Corrigan, Darryl Garcia, Larry Gibbons, Louisa Gilani, Russ Hopper, Pat Kelly, Gwen Lewis, Jackie MacFarlane, Alison Mercer-Smith, Maura Mullaney, Pete Sandford, Jonathan Strausbaugh, Tawny Strausbaugh, Sandra Ward and Irene Zaugg. Severinghaus originally directed this version of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” back in his college days, to rousing praise, especially for his vision of the devil as pure worldly temptation.Sheryl Bailey Heath and Dennis Powell direct “Yogurt Security,” the opening piece for the evening. In it, Larry Gibbons and Pat Beck play an older couple who attempt to board a plane with an open container of yogurt, when a TSA agent (Kelly LeVan) comically intervenes. Longtime White Rock resident Robert F. Benjamin has collaborated on this play with prize-winning playwright Elaine Jarvik. Other collaborations include “Working Out,” “Handle with Care,” “Cruising,” “Mesa by Moonlight,” and “Cruising.” Benjamin himself has written “Offsides,” “Gorilla Tactics,” “Presents for Me,” “Warm Ashes,” “Fresh Out,” “The Search Party,” “Avocado Wagon,” and “Sunrise at Otowi Bridge,” all of which were produced either locally or otherwise.Little Theatre president Jennifer Wadsack produces both shows, which provided the entertainment for the Little Theatre’s annual New Year’s Eve bash. The shows continue to run, olios and all, Friday, Saturday and Jan. 11, 12, 13, 18, and 19. All evening performances begin at 8:15 p.m. while the Sunday matinee has a 2 p.m. curtain. Tickets for the regular run are $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors and are available for purchase in advance at C.B. Fox or at the door.For more information, contact Jennifer Wadsack at 672-9706.