Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The Devil's Disciple Intrigues and Amuses in All Its Colors
Also see Bob's review of The Learned Ladies
Puritanism, religious hypocrisy and war are the principal targets of Shaw's wrath.
It is Shaw's only play that is set in America. The setting is the village of Westerbridge, New Hampshire, in late September, 1777, and the British military is spreading terror in an effort to suppress the spirit of the revolting colonists. There is a heavy and plot-heavy set-up involving the cruel and judgmental, puritanical Mrs. Dudgeon, the death and reading of the will of her husband, and her cruelty toward her husband's illegitimate child.
Dick Dudgeon, a self-described disciple of the devil, is her reprobate son whose income is derived from smuggling. British authorities have determined to hang Presbyterian minister Anthony Anderson as a traitor. Finding Dick in the company of the minister's wife, Judith Anderson, they mistake him for the minister and place him under arrest. Determined not to betray Anderson to the British, Dick convinces Judith to remain silent and allows that he is the minister. Thus, he is arrested in Anderson's place. When Anderson returns, Judith convinces her husband that it would be senseless for him to turn himself in, as then both he and Dick would be killed. Despite this, when Anderson goes off, Judith regards him as cowardly for having run away, and becomes enamored of the noble reprobate Dick. End of act two.
The scene shifts to the local British Army barracks and marketplace gallows where Dick is tried for treason by a military tribunal determined to hang him. It is here in the play's most delightful and witty third act that the Shavian wit shines brightly. Here Shaw introduces us to the British General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne who is the felicitous purveyor of Shaw's spirited skepticism. The events here precede by a few weeks the defeat of Burgoyne and his troops at the battle of Saratoga.
James Knight is an appealing, dashing Dick Dudgeon. Paul Niebanck conveys both the opportunism and essential decency of Anthony Anderson. Elizabeth A. Davis is Judith, the minister's wife. Judith appropriately never fully sheds her primness even when she takes a mind to ... well, you know. As Anne Dudgeon, Cynthia Mace has an outsized meanness which is simultaneously abhorrent and amusing. Company mainstay Edmond Genest happily fully embraces the occasion to steal the show as the cynically sagacious General Burgoyne. (Unhappy with the idea of the preordained hanging, Burgoyne hilariously observes, "Martyrdom ... is the only way in which a man can become famous without ability".)
Other substantial contributions are made by Katie Willmorth, Connor Carew, Matt Sullivan and Sheffield Chastain. Director Paul Mullins has obtained notable performances from the entire ensemble, and succeeded to a remarkable degree in integrating the diverse styles that are encompassed here. However, performing the three-act play with only one intermission (after act two) disguises and distorts its effective, well-defined structure. As today's audiences often prefer that there be only one intermission when one act of a three act play has a brief playing time, a three-minute interval between two of the acts in productions of three act plays could be considered. Also, as was the case when most three act plays were originally produced, the setting of each act and each scene could be in listed in the program.
Brittany Vista's clever and effective unit setting is basically an open walled raised rectangular wooden platform.
That The Devil's Disciple was one of Shaw's earlier plays (it was first produced in 1897) likely plays a role in the diverse stylistic elements which comprise it. Initially, although it is not without humor, it is dire in situation and melodramatic in tone. As it quickly moves along through three relatively short acts, broader elements of comic misadventure take center stage with romantic comedy and, in act three, pointedly satiric Shavian wit coming to the fore. Although that third act is decidedly the delightful highlight of the play, The Devil's Disciple is entertaining throughout and its contrasting colors make for a varied and rich theatrical journey.
The Devil's Disciple continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 7:30 pm/ Thursday - Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 2:30 pm) through July 27, 2014, at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.
The Devil's Disciple by George Bernard Shaw; directed by Paul Mullins