BWW Reviews: THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE Reveals George Bernard Shaw's Sense of Excitement
As a playwright, George Bernard Shaw is associated mostly with his dapper and fastidiously-observed social comedies. Present-day audiences know Shaw best from Pygmalion, or from one of the many adaptations of this work--an endearing character study to be sure, but an endearing character study named after a Greek myth and centered on a self-absorbed language professor named Henry Higgins. Intellectual, conscientious, needlessly yet loveably fussy: for many, that's the "Shavian" style. On the face of it, has there ever been a writer less likely to pen a piece of science fiction, or a murder mystery, or a Revolutionary War melodrama?
Astonishingly, Shaw did pen the last one of these. Written in 1896 and staged in New York the following year, Shaw's The Devil's Disciple is a tale of intrigue, mistaken identity, and morally fraught choices. It is easy to see why the play won over Fifth Avenue audiences and made Shaw's career, and it is also possible to see the reserves of uniquely Shavian refinement and purpose beneath this lively genre exercise. The great virtue of director Paul Mullins's rendition of the Devil's Disciple, which is now onstage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, is exactly this sense of revelation: Shaw shines through as both a canny entertainer and an earnest moralist. This production shows us that the fussy, finicky, effete image of Shaw is barely the whole truth--barely the truth at all, perhaps--all while managing to show us a rousing good time.
The Devil's Disciple also finds The Shakespeare Theatre playing wisely true to type. Over the years, the Theatre's artistic team has trotted out one perfectly proportioned and fantastically expressive set after another, and the work of scenic designer Brittany Vasta is no exception: a huge wooden superstructure, carefully shadowed by Andrew Hungerford's lighting and capable of evoking everything from a kitchen to a gallows. This treatment helps Shaw out, too; The Devil's Disciple brings up duty, identity, and of course a little theology, but the demands of pacing and suspense keep Shaw from giving some of these themes their due. The set is ideal for rushing, fighting, stomping up and down: melodramas thrive on amped-up action and darkness, and this melodrama is no exception. Enjoy now, and maybe discuss later.
For all its later liveliness, Shaw's play begins with dour circumstances; the year is 1777, and the small town of Westerbridge, New Hampshire, is bracing itself for hostilities with the Redcoats. Into this commotion comes Richard Dudgeon (James Knight), the Devil's Disciple of the title. At first, Richard is mostly interested in learning the contents of his father's will (which could make his fortune) and in shocking the good people of Westerbridge, including local minister Anthony Anderson (Paul Niebanck) and Anthony's s poised young wife (Elizabeth A. Davis). Yet despite their differences, Richard and Anthony have one opinion in common: they are convinced that the British army, intending to "make an example" of the rebels, will soon hang an inhabitant of Westerbridge. But which inhabitant? A community leader like Anderson, a miscreant like Dudgeon, or someone else entirely?
I'm not inclined to say too much more about hard and fast plot points: The Devil's Disciple is full of suspenseful twists that 19th-century theatergoers might have seen coming, but that 21st-century viewers probably won't. (During intermission, I had to struggle mightily not to whip out my iPhone, search "shaw devil's disciple summary," and kill the drama right there.) Suffice it to say that the second act is a treat; the tension rises, as does the number of one-liners, with the appearance of redcoat bigwig General Burgoyne (Edmond Genest, never breaking a sweat and clearly having the time of his life). Suffice it to say, too, that a few of Shaw's most set-in-their-ways characters manage to change radically. You might never think they had it in them--or that Shaw had a play like this in him, for that matter.
To purchase tickets for The Devil's Disciple visit The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey web site at www.shakespearenj.org or call (973) 408-5600.
Photo Credit: Jerry Dalia