Although Shel Silverstein is best known today for his whimsical picture books and best-selling anthologies of children’s poetry (“Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “A Light in the Attic”), he was just as prolific a satirist, cartoonist and songwriter. Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Peter, Paul and Mary all recorded Silverstein originals.
Much of Silverstein’s non-kid lit work is gleefully dark and surprisingly bawdy. I still remember getting my hands on a copy of his “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book” as a child and ignoring the warning that it was for “adults only.” Most of the jokes sailed over my head, but I recall being taken aback by how inappropriate it all seemed, thinking, “Shel ‘The Giving Tree’ Silverstein wrote this?”
His poem “The Devil and Billy Markham” is a prime example of Silverstein’s sly, subversive edge. First published in Playboy in 1979, it’s an R-rated rhyming epic about a struggling country singer who makes a bum deal with Satan and descends into the underworld. Think of it as a sardonic, sing-song take on Dante’s “Inferno.”
“The Devil and Billy Markham” was adapted into a one-act, one-man show a decade after the poem’s initial publication, and it comes to Interplayers tonight for a single performance that benefits the theater. The show stars Portland actor Jonah Weston, who says he came across the play in a bookstore when he was 18 and has since performed it at least 30 times.
Weston portrays all of the characters in the show but without makeup or costume changes, manipulating his voice or his posture to transform himself into various members of the play’s absurd cast. There’s Markham and the Devil, of course, but also God, who’s a seemingly unbeatable billiards champ, and the aptly named Scuzzy Sleezo, a former pool hustler turned “hustler’s agent.”
“It’s a very minimalist kind of show,” he said. “There are epic descriptions of hell and things that are happening and how people are feeling, and it’s all so very theatrical that it doesn’t serve the purposes of the play to add too many elements or tell too much of the story with sets and costumes.”
Markham’s journey begins in a Nashville saloon, where the devil promises him fame and fortune if he conquers a dice game that’s impossible to win. Markham loses, of course, and pretty soon he’s slowly rotating on Satan’s rotisserie spit. But the devil continues to pester him with one gamble and after another, and Billy will travel back to Earth, up to heaven and down to hell once more before the poem’s end.
“(Silverstein) has a lot to say throughout the play about religion and relationships,” Weston said. “It gets better and better, and deeper and deeper. … He confronts so many things with each stanza. Addiction is a big thing he talks about, and not just addiction to substance – addiction to gambling, addiction to sex, whatever your folly is.”
And although “The Devil and Billy Markham” is more irreverent than the writing Silverstein intended for younger audiences, Weston says the author’s off-center but sympathetic worldview defines all of his work.
“His children’s books, like everything else he did, have wonderful messages to them,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a little adult, because that’s the way the world is, and that’s what this play is. It’s a hilarious play, but it’s also touching. I still get chills up and down my spine when I say some of the verses out loud on stage. It’s brilliant work, and he was a brilliant man.”