Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea 

Finding something funny Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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What is it? The darling of the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is a dark theatrical cabaret by a company called 1927 that parodies the techniques and vernacular of the silent film era by combining campy acting and cinematic mimicry with live musical performance. Once word gets out — and once images of that pasty-faced woman with white tights, black frock, and blood-red umbrella (a la The Dark Knight featuring the late Heath Ledger) begin to circulate — it's likely the buzz will spread like pillaging gingerbread men (see below).

Why see it? At its core, Devil is a series of surreal vignettes that are visually referential, conceptually impressionistic, and impishly funny. Since its premiere last year, critics have praised segments like "The Nine Deaths of Choo Choo Le Chat" ("a comic meditation on the surprising nature of death" —The Guardian) and "The Biscuit Tin Revolution," a baleful miniature of gingerbread men gone wild — these sweet and naughty brutes storm the city to "rape and pillage so that the streets run red with raspberry jam."

Who should go? Anyone who likes a tangy bit of irony-verging-on-the-grotesque in their comedy. The funny thing about being alive is that someday we'll all be dead, which is a funny-weird, not a funny-ha-ha, and somewhat macabre, but not quite serious, way of saying that just being alive is funny. (John Stoehr)

Spoleto Festival USA $32 1 hour 25 min.May 22, 26 at 8 p.m.; May 24 at 9 p.m.; May 25 at 2 p.m.; May 26 at 12 p.m.; May 27 at 6 p.m. Emmett Robinson Theatre, 54 St. Philip St. (843) 579-3100

Terrible Knowledge: Finding something funny Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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The opening story of Steven Millhauser's new short story collection, Dangerous Laughter, features two characters who are, in all but name, Tom and Jerry.

Like the classic cartoon series, the cat schemes for ways to catch the mouse. The mouse, meanwhile, doesn't think about the cat much. He's preoccupied with his life of leisure — reading in his bathrobe with his slippered feet propped up on a stool. The cat is merely an obstacle to getting cheese from the kitchen.

The story, called "Cat 'N' Mouse," is a litany of hilarious failures. The cat's toe gets caught in a steel-tooth mousetrap. An anvil falls on his head. Dynamite explodes in his face. His teeth fall out. His head falls off. At one point, an explosive rips his fur off to reveal pink skin and polka-dotted boxer shorts.

Millhauser's tone is quiet, calm, and unassuming. In his measured sentences, however, lie a darker, existential concern for his character — as does the suggestion that they are not as one-dimensional as we think they are. Something dreadful, maybe even sad, permeates their lives. Something like doom.

When the cat sends a mechanical mouse loaded with explosives into the mouse hole, the mouse insouciantly turns the tick-tocking mouse around. The cat, mistaking it for the real mouse, grabs it, grins, then puts it close to his ear.

"A terrible knowledge dawns in his eyes," Millhauser writes.

Cartoon Death

"Terrible knowledge" fascinates Suzanne Andrade, co-founder of the British theater company 1927. Like exploding mechanical mice, it's funny.

The group's show, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which opens at the Spoleto Festival on May 22, won top honors at 2007's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, beating more than 2,000 shows that were presented that year.

For lack of a better term, 1927 calls Devil theatrical cabaret. Costumed in black formal attire, pasty white makeup, and rose-red lips, actors perform a series of surreal vignettes with video, animation, and live musical performance. Devil parodies the techniques and vernacular of the silent film era while drawing influence from early 20th-century cartoons, Buster Keaton, and David Lynch. During our talk, Andrade refers to Stanley Kubrick's striking adaptation of The Shining at least a half dozen times.

Like "Cat 'N' Mouse," Devil offers a fantastical world free of Newtonian physics and other kinds of terrible knowledge. Devil plays with surfaces, with smoke and mirrors. It plays with our suspicion that something lurks beneath that veneer. It exploits that heightened state of anticipation for comic purposes.

In one segment, called "The Nine Deaths of Choo Choo Le Chat," a feline-like figure is seen in nine stages of comic horror. Think of The Gashlycrumb Tinies, Edward Gorey's gothic blending of Mother Goose and H.P. Lovecraft, and you'll get an idea of what Choo Choo's demise is like.

"She dies from an arrow through the head," Andrade says. "But it's not serious. It's a cartoon death. We're creating a strange world. All of us are into creating the feeling of watching a three-dimensional film."

Take, for instance, Devil's sinister twin sisters.

When they speak, they speak simultaneously with arch English accents. They lost their grandmother (or was she murdered?). They need a new playmate. They pick an audience member. Usually a man. They dress him up like an old woman. They subject him to all sorts of physical and mental torture.

It's one of the most popular of Devil's segments.

"We take the person into the screen, and he appears in the movie," Andrade says, explaining the illusion of being "in" the movie screen. "Once he's there, the sisters do terrible things to him. It's the highlight of the show."

Outside the screen, the man is subject to the laws and ethical principles of reality. Inside the screen, reality is topsy-turvy. Through the looking glass, things have a way of becoming far from what audiences expect — i.e., double-talking twin sisters subjecting a cross-dressing stranger to idle forms of torture.

And it's funny.

In exploring what's real and representations of what's real, 1927 keeps audiences from coming to solid conclusions about the constructed universe they are seeing. As long as it's imaginary, it's all right to laugh. But what happens when it doesn't seem imaginary anymore? What then?

Something Eerie

At the end of Millhauser's story, the cat is about to execute the final solution.

With a chalkboard eraser, he erases the mouse hole. The mouse, seated in a chair, reading, is irritated. The cat erases the chair, the book, the entire room.

"Now there is nothing left in the world except the cat and the mouse."

Just when the cat is about to eat his nemesis, the mouse produces a handkerchief. He erases the cat's teeth, whiskers, paws, and then the whole cat. But then what? "He is alone with his handkerchief in a blank white world." So the mouse erases himself until "there is nothing left but the red handkerchief."

Andrade says audiences feel safe when the action is happening on a screen. She suggests there's security in the knowledge that our experience is merely an illusion. But when that knowledge comes into doubt, as when characters "step out" of movie screens, or when characters erase each other with red handkerchiefs, that insecurity can be unsettling — funny but also disturbing.

"There's something eerie about it," Andrade says, of piercing the veil of illusion. "For us, there's an opportunity for something clever and tricksy."

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