A rogue's gallery in one actor

Brent Harris is an experienced bad guy — on stage, at least.

Without tooting his own horn too much, the New York City actor said he is a peaceful sort who avoids confrontation and is opposed to violence.

But directors don't necessarily see that.

Demons, vampires, soldiers and Scar from "The Lion King" are some of the feathers in Harris' cap.

Starting Friday, he will adopt the attitude and attire of yet another rogue: Screwtape from C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters." His deeply layered character is confident, selfish, triumphant, manipulative, ambitious and hopeless — all at once.

"I get into someone else's skin, psyche and experience, which I think acting is all about," said Harris, 54. "There's a liberating feeling to get inside an alien sort of behavior and communicate it. I have to understand the villain and why he's doing what he's doing — not judge him. It's a lesson in empathy that we can all use."

At the Irvine Barclay Theatre, the roughly 90-minute show will be followed by a conversation with director Max McLean, who co-adapted the work with Jeff Fiske.

"The Screwtape Letters" came to the theater twice before, in 2011 and 2012, and was greeted by full houses both times.

"I saw the production when it first played the Barclay," President Douglas Rankin said. "I will return to see it because I am especially interested in what the new actor brings to the role."

As an academic and Christian theologian of repute, Lewis is of interest to a diverse demographic. And "The Screwtape Letters" is high-quality and original — both necessary ingredients for a Barclay offering, according to Rankin. Advance sales, indicating that the show is slated for yet another success, encouraged organizers to add an extra performance on Sunday evening.

"That's why we keep coming back," McLean said.

Starting at Manhattan's Theatre at St. Clement's in 2007, the play began its first national tour in early 2011. Since then, audiences in Atlanta, Portland, Washington, D.C., Houston, Salt Lake City and elsewhere have watched Screwtape (Harris), a senior demon in the hierarchy of Hell, use 31 letters to train his nephew Wormwood, a junior Tempter, to bring down a British man, known only as the Patient.

In this inverted universe, where up is down, good is bad, God is the "Enemy" and the Devil is "Our Father below," Screwtape, who belongs to the Infernal Civil Service, ruins people by guiding them to the "soft, gentle path to Hell."

Set in his eerie office, where the decor mainly features skeletal bones, "The Screwtape Letters" also includes Toadpipe, a grotesque creature who assists Screwtape. The serpentine secretary's body is transformed to depict vices that Screwtape employs to collect human souls, the main source of food in hell.

Although a team of more than 100 people work on the play, whether it's behind-the-scenes or helping with marketing and administration, only two actors appear on stage: Harris and either Marissa Molnar or Tamala Bakkensen, who take turns playing Toadpipe, but have no lines. Instead, their contribution comprises an elaborate physical vocabulary.

"I think [C.S. Lewis] has an extraordinary imagination and he's an extremely learned and generous writer," said McLean, who played the titular role until Harris took over in January. "He is vulnerable and so much of his work comes from his own experiences. He wrote about his own battles with temptation in 'The Screwtape Letters' — it's personal and has been so helpful to many people who have read it."

When taking this story "from the page to the stage," McLean and Fiske beefed up Toadpipe's component and picked a dramatic and captivating narrative arc: a hunt. The play simultaneously follows the Patient's transformation from distant to devout and Screwtape's fall from being like the master of the universe to a deflated devil.

Thinking back to his audition, Harris, who zigzags across the United States with a yoga mat, Kindle and mouth guard, recalled being instantly hooked to the rich language. Now, he finds that the part has challenged him physically and psychologically. It's the first time he's been asked to speak at one stretch for almost an hour and a half. So, as Satan's chief psychiatrist, clad in a red silk brocade frock coat, he is forced to pace himself.

"It comes down to being aware of what your body is doing and how you're feeling," said Harris, who's been to dry locations where his throat was parched in the first 10 minutes. "You have to check in with yourself, not panic and tell yourself, 'I can get through this.' It's interesting how the brain and body can compete with each other or, if you relax, come into harmony again."

This mantra — "Don't freak out, just keep going" — helped Harris overcome an untied shoelace in the early moments of a show last week. While it's also enabled him to remain unperturbed by the loss of luggage, flight delays caused by technical glitches and even getting stuck on the tarmac for three hours, it does come with a caveat.

"You have to meet a challenge and not be afraid of it, but remain on guard," he said. "You can't walk through it. You can't fall asleep. You're dead if you fall asleep."

If You Go

What: C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters"

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $32 to $92

Information: http://www.thebarclay.org or (949) 854-4646

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World