It opens on a rainy night and the devil’s begging on his knees. In a Nashville dive — ripe for the picking with desperate souls — the devil taunts his audience: “Is there one among you scum who’ll roll the dice with me?” “You get one roll and you bet your soul. And if you roll 13. you win.”
Only one person, down-and-out country crooner Billy Markham, decides to roll the devil’s dice — blank dice carved from Jesus’ bones.
“The more and more I perform this play, I have to say I don’t think Billy’s ignorant of his choices,” says Jonah Weston, who’s bringing Shel Silverstein’s The Devil and Billy Markham to Coeur d’Alene for a second year. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. I mean, the devil hands him these dice that have no spots on them, and Billy takes the bet anyway. He knows he’s going to lose.”
The Devil and Billy Markham began as an explicit, six-part epic poem, which Silverstein — most commonly known as the author of children’s classics like Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic — published in Playboy in January 1979. Chicago director and producer Gregory Mosher transformed it into a one-act play 10 years later.
It’s a sexually outlandish story, one that’s fond of four-letter words, people burning on spits, 13-hour orgies, fellatio and God chastising humans as “pussies.”
Despite its vulgarities, the hour-long play eloquently weighs in on notions of good and evil, heaven and hell, and all the shit in between. Weston says the play draws parallels to Dante’s Inferno and Goethe’s Faust but was created for the average viewer.
“I always knew I was going to perform it some day, I just didn’t know when, where or how,” says Weston, who mulled over doing the one-man show for 12 years before deciding to take on the ambitious effort. “It’s stuck with me for so long because it’s just an amazing story. Each twist and turn is more shocking and surprising than the rest. It still sends chills up my spine.”
Weston, much like Billy Markham, is just an average guy navigating a chaotic world in a search for meaning.
“I really do identify with a lot of these characters,” Weston says. “I’m a professional actor, which is not an easy business to be in, so I relate very much to Billy in his lack of success and in his music career. I mean, it’s all a long, hard struggle.”
Weston, 30, has spent the last six years performing professionally in Portland, and 18 years before that performing with the Lake City Playhouse, Coeur d’Alene Summer Theater, Spokane Interplayers Ensemble and Spokane Civic Theatre.
It was in Spokane that Weston first came across The Devil and Billy Markham.
“I was 18 and working at a Barnes & Noble in Spokane Valley,” he says. “On my lunch break, I would alternate between reading Eugene O’Neill and David Mamet plays and then I came across The Devil and Billy Markham.” He performed the piece first in 2009, to sold-out theaters in Portland, before taking the production on an Inland Northwest tour.
The minimal staging features a table, a package of cigarettes, matches and a bottle of whiskey. Weston simultaneously performs five different characters — God, the devil, Billy, Scuzzy Sleezo and the narrator — without costume changes or props. This means body language and tonal variation is of the utmost importance.
As if possessed, Weston gallivants across the stage and snarls and whips his face into the devil — a cocky, albeit playful puppet master. When he calms his face and takes to the bottle of whiskey, embodying the kind of character that Tom Waits conjured up in Nighthawks at the Diner, he’s the narrator — a vagabond used to singing for his supper. When his voice rises to a whimpering yelp and his hands writhe in his pockets, he’s Scuzzy Sleezo — a greasy con man who’s looking to make a divine wager.
Weston manages to portray five men without complications onstage — humping and sliding down the slippery slopes of hell.
“Creating a solo performance in verse without making it a pretentious, boring kind of poetry reading was a real challenge, I suppose,” Weston says. “So with a piece like this, you really have to identify with the characters yourself.”
“Luckily for me, Shel Silverstein does most of the work.”
The Devil and Billy Markham • Fri-Sun, June 17-19, at 7:30 pm • $12; $15 door, $8 students • The Icon • 317 Sherman Ave., Coeur d’Alene • jonahweston.com • (208) 665-7407