Originally slated to premiere in August 2021, but delayed because of the Covid pandemic, Twenty Minutes with the Devil has finally premiered in a brilliantly realised production of operatic proportions in which the setting, lighting and sound design are as integral to its success as the actors.
Inspired by the capture of Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, El Chapo, the play takes place in a seedy motel room where two traffic officers are holding prisoner a filth-covered suspect until more appropriate authorities arrive. The prisoner describes himself as “a humble businessman with a knack for success and no time for weakness”, but neither officer is fooled by this description.
It is only later in the play when the prisoner reveals himself as the much sought-after drug baron, El Ticho, that all three are forced to examine their own integrity and motives. While El Ticho attempts to play the officers against each other while bargaining for his release, the officers begin to realise that they are in as much danger from their own authorities as they are from El Ticho’s supporters.
Caroline Stacey has produced a marvellously entertaining production, tightly directed and impressively detailed. She’s taken full advantage of the skills of her collaborating creatives to include some dazzling special effects.
Imogen Keen’s run-down motel setting is a masterpiece of grottiness with its peeling paintwork, mismatched furniture and suspect linen. It is also full of surprises. Faces appear in the walls, as do bullet holes. Grids in the floor allow in creepy lighting effects and smoke haze.
Antony Hateley’s lighting design is equally brilliant with its suspended faces outlined in sharply focussed lighting, all enhanced by the terrific atmospheric sound design of James Tighe which creates another world outside the claustrophobic motel room housing the three protagonists. .
She’s also extracted excellent performances from her three actors. PJ Williams is perfectly cast as El Ticho, oozing quiet menace as he manipulates the insecurities of his captors in search of any opportunity to escape their clutches.
Raoul Craemer flirts with slapstick to create an entirely believable characterisation of a terrified survivor without scruples who’s willing to abandon any loyalties, rules or regulations that prevent him from escaping his present predicament, and exercising the only power at his command by inflicting mindless cruelty on his defenceless captive while his superior officer is absent.
As Angela Guzman, the senior of the two captors, Joanna Richards gives a strong performance, constantly pulling rank in futile attempts to cope with the defiant insubordination of her weaselling off-sider while becoming increasingly aware of the hopelessness of her situation.
Although the play addresses serious topics and situations, stylistic variations in the dialogue and presentation make it difficult to decide how seriously it is meant to be taken.
For instance, though the script offers an unconvincing explanation, the audience is left to wonder about the ethnicity of Lieutenant Guzman for much of the play, and her recovery from an almost catatonic breakdown at one stage seemed remarkably quick. The behaviour of the officers in front of their prisoner was often surprisingly cavalier as was their handling of their weapons.
The play makes much use of voice-overs, internal dialogues and direct address to the audience as the characters argue to justify various stances. While well managed, these poetic soliloquies tend to interrupt the flow of the storyline by breaking the tension.
Similarly the spectacular cliff-hanger which ends the first act is so climactic that the first night audience appeared confused as to whether the play had finished at that point. But despite these reservations, or perhaps because of them, this production provides such a captivating and imaginative theatrical experience that you’ll kick yourself if you miss it.
Twenty Minutes with the Devil
The Street Theatre, 15 Childers Street, City West (Canberra)
Performance: Saturday 18 June 2022
Season continues to 25 June 2022
Information and Bookings: www.thestreet.org.au
Image: PJ Williams, Raoul Craemer and Joanna Richards in Twenty Minutes with the Devil – photo by Creswick Collective
Review: Bill Stephens OAM