The Devil and Billy Markham: A Raunchier Side to a Beloved Childhood Treasure

shel silverstein
Like many young children, I grew up reading internationally acclaimed American poet, writer, musician and artist Shel Silverstein’s whimsical and humorous poetry in books such as Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. I also had no idea that he wrote equally fanciful poems for adults in Playboy Magazine. The Devil and Billy Markham, which plays at the Royal St. George’s Auditorium as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival, is an epic poem for adults written by Silverstein and first published in the January 1979 issue of Playboy. Ten years later, Silverstein teamed up with American playwright and the Prince of the Expletive, David Mamet to stage an evening of one-act plays entitled Oh, Hell! The evening began with Mamet’s Bobby Goud in Hell and concluded with The Devil and Billy Markham.
Whether he is creating the world were the sidewalk ends or rhyming words with “poon,” Silverstein is a brilliant, eloquent and witty storyteller. The Devil and Billy Markham tells the story of a gambling musician who loses his soul in a bet against the Devil. Silverstein’s imagery of Hell is so vivid one can nearly smell the hot rancid air and feel the smouldering fires. He creates the Devil to be at once amicable and charming, while also despicable and cunning. He muses on the very idea of Heaven and Hell, the Devil, and God and humanity, suggesting that everything shifts as the values of good and evil intersect and that one often uses the disguise of the other to tempt or trick or justify himself. Billy Markham is a scheming scoundrel and as the story unfolds it becomes clear that he is poised in the position to play even the Devil for a fool. Silverstein mounts the action of this story with brilliant pacing, his rhyming prowess is the ultimate in satisfaction, and all the twists and turns of the story are gleefully hilarious.
As a theatrical experience, Tom McGee recites Silverstein’s epic poem as a long, winding monologue, presenting it like a proficient storyteller, but not as an actor would perform a one-man show. Alexandra West’s direction is quite uninspired, but she does have a few interesting lighting tricks with a flashlight that I thought were kind of fun. It is Silverstein’s text and his text alone which make The Devil and Billy Markham such a captivating piece of theatre, and I am not sure if a more creative and theatrical concept would have detracted or enhanced the magic of the poetry. It was kind of pleasant to be able to listen to McGee’s dramatic voice and, like children listening to the teacher read from a storybook, to allow our imagination to flood the theatre with pictures rather than having someone else’s vision imposed upon us.
I would have never imagined the place where Shel Silverstein and David Mamet collide, but now that I have ventured beyond where the sidewalk ends, I have also become enamoured of Silverstein’s sexual perversity in Chicago.
The Devil and Billy Markham plays at the Royal St. George’s Auditorium (120 Howland Avenue) at the following times:
Sat, July 10 5:15 PM

Sun, July 11 9:00 PM

all tickets $10 at the door or book in advance by calling the fringe hotline at 416.966.1062 or go online at http://www.fringetoronto.com/.

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