Shel Silverstein is best known for his irreverent and quirky children’s books, such as the modern classic, “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” But he was also a Playboy magazine cartoonist, a musician and a composer, writing songs that included the Johnny Cash hit “A Boy Named Sue.” And he was a poet for adults, author of the raunchy epic “The Devil and Billy Markham.”
Silverstein’s poem starts on Nashville’s famed Music Row, where we meet beleaguered songwriter Billy Markham. Markham’s rampant libido and penchant for gambling make him an easy mark for the Devil and his “dice carved from Jesus’ bones.”
With his signature mischievous rhymes and rambling iambic pentameter, Silverstein weaves a for-mature-audiences-only-tale that takes the reader on a journey with Billy Markham to hell, heaven and back again, all the while exploring the eternal questions of fate and free will.
The six-part poem first appeared in January 1979 in an issue of Playboy and, subsequently, as a one-act play presented at Lincoln Center, along with David Mamet’s “Bobby Gould In Hell.” Bringing it to life at the Old Marquer Theatre is Jonah Weston. The one-man show, directed by Jamie Rea, is presented by Weston’s theater company, Action Talks Productions.
Weston said he discovered the play many years ago. “The language was awesome, and it was all so incredibly layered, so complex,” he said. “It was twisting and surprising every step of the way. I knew that one day I wanted to perform it.”
One evening in 2009, Weston read the poem to a playwright and director friend. She was spellbound and urged Weston to put the poem on stage. He first presented the play in 2010 at Portland’s Curious Comedy Theater, where it received rave reviews. Since then, Weston has toured the show throughout the country.
The classically trained actor has numerous stage roles to his credit and has appeared on television in co-starring roles on TNT’s “Leverage, NBC’s “Grimm” and IFC’s “Portlandia.” He recently moved to New Orleans, attracted by work in Hollywood South. He’s using this production as his introduction to the New Orleans theater community. He will narrate both title roles — plus a few cameos, including God.
“With this production, I just wanted say, ‘Hello, New Orleans, here I am,’ ” he says. “It’s just me and the music of Tom Waits, which I think catches the spirit of the play perfectly. I wanted a streamline production so its seems like a story told around a campfire.”
It’s an especially lyrical story, captured in lines like these, listing the guests invited to the wedding of the Devil’s bride:
“And Marie Laveau, she plays her bones and Yorick, he plays his,
And Hank plays guitar with three strings broke, and that’s what Hell really is.
And Janis and Elvis and Jimi and Cass, they’re up there singin’ the blues,
And Adolf Hitler and Joan of Arc start doin’ the boogaloo.”
This will not be a theatrical experience for the faint of heart. The poem is coarse and vulgar, and women are not treated too kindly. But it does offer a unique look at American culture through Silverstein’s eccentrically creative imagination. In Weston’s hands, it should prove entertaining, as well as enlightening.