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A rogue's gallery in one actor

Brent Harris stars in 'The Screwtape Letters' at Irvine Barclay.

December 26, 2013|By Rhea Mahbubani
  • Brent Harris stars as Screwtape in "The Screwtape Letters," on stage at the Irvine Barclay Theatre from Dec. 27 to 29.
Brent Harris stars as Screwtape in "The Screwtape… (Scott Suchman )

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."

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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."

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