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C. S. Lewis On Stage

a One Man Show
by Adapted and Staged by Tom Key

COMPANY : Theatrical Outfit [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Balzer Theatre @ Herren's [WEBSITE]
ID# 2639

SHOWING : January 09, 2008 - January 20, 2008



Anticipating the premiere of the film version of C.S. Lewis' "Prince Caspian," Theatrical Outfit brings back Tom Key's acclaimed portrayal of one of the most influential imaginations of the twentieth century. Adapted from "Surprised by Joy," "The Great Divorce," "The Screwtape Letters," "Mere Christianity" and more, Key brings to life the mind and heart of Lewis.

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by Dedalus
Monday, January 21, 2008
I will be the first to admit that I am the last person qualified to judge the accuracy of any portrait of English writer C.S. Lewis. My “image” of him is based on fictional portraits (such as the play “Shadowlands”) and skeptical rebuttals to his reconversion to Christianity as exemplified by his “Mere Christianity” series of lectures and essays. I’ve read only excerpts from these essays, and a few parts parts of his “Narnia” books.

This being said, I have to confess that I found Tom Key’s one-man theatrical portrait (“C.S. Lewis on Stage” at Theatrical Outfit) awkwardly written and thinly performed.

Let me just touch on the aspect I’m probably wrong about – my “image” of Mr. Lewis’ latter-life faith. My limited exposure to his essays has always suggested to me that this reconversion was one of non-judgmental joy. In Mr. Key’s script, he even talks about the wish to be left alone to enjoy the pleasures his recovered faith has given him. Yet, as the play talks about this part of his life, Mr. Key grows more dour and joyless, and, in fact, the one poem he includes in this segment is a very judgmental (and not very interesting) screed against “evolutionists.” I’ll concede that Mr. Key has done much more research on C.S. Lewis and could probably dissuade me of my preconception. But I must still observe that most of the evening is significantly joyless.

That’s not to say it’s a total bitter pill. Mr. Key is very good showing us Mr. Lewis’ wry self-deprecating humor, and there are many enjoyable moments in the first half of the show.

But, I still found the whole structure very clumsy. The evening starts out as if we’ve been invited to Mr. Lewis’ home to hear him read from his “Screwtape Letters.” He keeps interrupting himself with digressions into his other works, and with writing a letter to a friend. At one point, though, he wanders offstage looking for tea, as if he’s really in a recital hall with a backstage staff busily brewing for him. If that’s the case, then why the pretense of a desk and easy chair and lectern? And why would he want to write a personal letter in a large and public recital hall? This awkwardness is exacerbated by extreme lighting effects for the “readings,” such as you would find in a contemporary (rather than period) recital hall. It’s as if the designer made no effort to create a “look” consistent with the framing story, but was more interested in 21st-century “pretty picture” for the stories. The design tended to distract more than underscore the individual pieces.

Later, when we hear the subject of Mr. Lewis’ letter, it really jars, because it describes a major tragedy in his life. Yet Mr. Key gives it less emotional weight than his “acting out” scenes. It is a surprising choice, and I found it inconsistent with the portrait of Lewis Mr. Key spends all evening creating for us. If it were meant as a motivation for him to think over his life and work, than why was it saved for a late-in-the-show “reveal?” If it were meant to show us a Lewis who keeps his feelings submerged and private, then why does he go so “over the top” when he reads from his works?

In fact, I found Mr. Key’s whole performance surprisingly thin (especially considering the wonderful portrayals he has given us in the past). He seems to get the physicality right, as he does the easy bonhomie with us, his “guests.” But, vocally, he has two notes – quiet and confident, or loud and often unintelligible. When he’s “playing roles,” he makes them truly distinct and sharp – what, in other circumstances, would be a good choice, but here, undercuts his claims of “being a bad actor.” In other words, when he gets to the “readings,” we’re seeing Tom Key perform them, not C.S. Lewis.

As to the excerpts themselves, they break a cardinal rule of Readers Theatre (which, in the final analysis, this and other literary-focused single-performer pieces such as “Belle of Amherst” really are) – they are too-short excerpts from longer pieces that are not edited to flow into the main narrative, and which do not really give a flavor of the original piece. “The Man Born Blind,” especially, is edited to seem like a highly pretentious melodrama, rather than the poetic allegory it really is. With some of the other pieces (“Screwtape Letters,” for example), so much exposition is left out that, by the time we figure out what’s actually going on, the excerpt is over, and we’re left in the dark as to why it was included and how it reflects Mr. Lewis’ personality. Perhaps a more revealing (and involving) bio-play would have concentrated on Mr. Lewis’ poems and letters. Shorter excerpts from the longer pieces that reflect a particular theme or image or mood could then be used without having to go through the “heavy lifting” of bringing us “up to speed” on plot lines we may be unfamiliar with.

I have nothing but respect for any artist who is willing to research, compile, and perform such a piece as an homage to a respected literary figure. (I was an English major after all, and have my own Joyce collage sitting in the attic somewhere). But, in this case, too many of the choices Mr. Key made as both a writer and an actor do too little to reveal his subject to us. I left with none of my preconceptions altered, and with no deeper knowledge of a figure I have to admit I want to find intriguing.

And, I wanted the piece to at least fill me with the same joy Mr. Key finds in Mr. Lewis’ life and work, the same joy Mr. Lewis (allegedly) found in his work and his faith. I didn’t expect such a joyless and confusing mishmash. Mr. Key has done better. Mr. Lewis deserves better.

-- Brad Rudy (

1/20/2008 Addendum (Spoiler Alert):

This play has closed, so I feel safe commenting on the contents of the letter C.S. Lewis composes during the course of the evening – it’s basically to relate the death of his wife, Joy. You may say that this the cause for the “joylessness” of Mr. Lewis’ delivery, but I don’t quite accept that rationale. Because it’s such a major event in the life of the writer, saving it for a “surprise reveal” is contrivance at its worst, and, frankly, makes Lewis come across like a shallow jerk – his wife has just died and he’s out here making casual conversation with a roomful of strangers? I don’t buy it. And, unless I’m very much mistaken, he wrote very eloquently about her and about how his faith got him through his grief – where were these excerpts? Wouldn’t a more unified approach be telling us about her death at the top of the evening, then using his works to reflect on her and on their life together? Wouldn’t this be a beautiful opportunity to SHOW how faith can get us through our worst days (instead of just telling us it does)? I’m just asking …


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