The Fly By Night Club hosted a powerful performance of Shel Silverstein’s cult epic, “The Devil and Billy Markham” Oct. 9. The 90-minute poem-turned-one-man-show tells the story of a street hustler’s journey from damnation to salvation and back again.
Silverstein, well known for his children’s poetry books, takes a much darker tone in this piece. Far from “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” the themes of this piece are raunchy, mature, wholly un-innocent and definitely not for kids. The story begins with failed musician Billy Markham losing his soul to the Devil in a bet. What follows is an ethereal odyssey of sex, gambling and cosmic discovery. The tale encompasses ensuing adventures, from Billy’s tenure in hell to a game of pool with God to the wedding of the Devil himself.
Forrest Attaway serves as narrator and storyteller. He swaggers through the audience, unfolding the rhymes and details with remarkable connection to his listeners. Complementing Attaway’s unhurried yarn are a bluesy guitar and live singing. Those familiar with the poem might be taken aback by the addition of music, but Attaway and company have taken painstaking care to make sure it is always appropriate and moving.
Attaway’s laid-back adaptation was unexpected. The piece normally buzzes with constant energy and takes about 45 minutes. Saturday’s show, however, took almost two hours. It was an intriguing and revealing version of the story. While most interpretations of the piece will hit you with the action like a shot of whiskey hits your consciousness, by taking his time and pausing for instrumental interludes, Attaway demonstrated that this fable can be relished like the stale bitterness of beer sticking in your mouth.
The Fly by Night Club provided the perfect setting. Most of the story takes place in dirty bars and smoky pool halls. What better place to tell it than the uber-sleazy Spenard mainstay? The small environment also allowed Attaway to unfurl the story with intimacy and visceral subtlety. Only in such a setting could he wade through the audience, jump on a chair or sit at a table and drink with members of the crowd. Not that his performance was flawless. In addition to stumbling on a few lines, at times he could have picked up the pace, or times when the music, as soulful as it was, continued on too long. The more drawn out rendition is enjoyable but it probably could have been shortened up and made a bit neater.
If you don’t mind getting home late, ‘The Devil and Billy Markham’ should not be missed. Silverstein’s dark comedy is both a good time and a provocative take on man’s relationship with good and evil.