I love it when people practice what they preach. The Devil You Know, a delightfully imaginative new puppet theatre piece from Ping Chong & Company and Phantom Limb, is all about the soundness of traditional American values like hard work, democracy, and community service. And the way it has been made, and that it is presented to audiences in the just-christened Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, exactly reflects those values: handmade puppets, simple no-frills production design, and modest but passionate inventiveness characterize this low-tech but high-entertainment exhibition of theatre craftsmanship.
The Devil You Know is based on Stephen Vincent Benet's story "The Devil and Daniel Webster." The year is 1840. Jabez Stone is a New Hampshire farmer trying to eke out a living, but the rocky New England soil and a number of other discouraging circumstances—the looming foreclosure on his mortgage by a neighborhood miser/moneylender named Stephens chief among them—are working against him. His friend Tom wants Jabez to join a local farmer's political association, so that their concerns can be communicated to Congress and appropriate laws can be made to assist them. Jabez is reluctant to participate in the political process, however; but when the Devil, in the slick but scary persona of Mr. Scratch, appears to Jabez with the proverbial offer you cannot refuse, Jabez proves eager to take a quick but amoral path to prosperity. He discovers, almost too late, that his soul is actually worth something, and that's when local hero Daniel Webster shows up, to argue Jabez's case against Scratch and try to win him back his freedom.
Ping Chong's adaptation of the tale is clear and direct. Jabez and his neighbors are suffering at the hands of greedy businessmen and corrupt politicians and need to band together and work within our democratic system of government to bring about social change. The pursuit of money is wrong; the pursuit of happiness is right as long as it's well-tempered with a sense of neighborliness and the common good. There's nothing subtle about Chong's message here, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing. These are ideas that we seem to lose sight of more often than we should; I liked being reminded of them in the simple, eloquent, almost childlike manner that they're presented in The Devil You Know.
The storytelling is accomplished using various kinds of puppetry. The main action is depicted using near-life-size marionettes, designed by Erik Sanko and built by Oliver Dalzell. These stylized puppets are manipulated deftly by handlers Dalzell, Sabrina D'Angelo, Marta Mozelle MacRostie, Ronny Wasserstrom, Anne Polsuszny, Jenny Campbell, Matthew Leabo, Edouard Sanko, and Michael Schupbach, who move them with precision within spare but richly imagined sets that are housed inside a pair of miniature log cabins that occupy most of the stage area. Jessica Grindstaff and Gia Wolff are credited with scenic and architectural design, respectively. Projections by Maya Ciarrocchi and shadow puppets fill out the scenes, providing lovely, enlarged details. There are also a few segments that use some bunraku-style puppets, along with large-scale toy theatre concepts—a parade heralding the arrival of Daniel Webster into Jabez's hometown is the most memorable of these.
The dialogue is spoken, via recorded soundtrack, by a distinguished group of actors: Corbin Allardice, Ping Chong, Mark Jaynes, Nikki Hislop, Steven Rattazzi (as Mr. Scratch; perfect), Brian Hallas, Rafael Goldstein, Carolyn Goelzer, Lola Pashalinsky, and Michael Pemberton.
As I watched The Devil You Know, it occurred to me that Ping Chong and his collaborators could have used live actors to tell this story, or various combinations of computerized technologies to create a multimedia experience. But they seem to be listening very hard to the values extolled by Benet's story—even as they recognize the contradictions inherent in America's lost moral battles with slavery and forced migration of the Indians. By hearkening back to a style of theatre based on individual craftsmanship, economy, and simplicity, they allow the message to shine through and resonate loud and clear. They're reminding us who we mean to be, as Americans in general, and as creators and appreciators of indie theater in particular.