Review: THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE streaming from Washington Stage Guild

A speedy Shaw works in an online format relying solely on closeups

By: Mar. 18, 2021
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Review: THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE  streaming from Washington Stage Guild

Throughout its 35 years, Washington Stage Guild has endeavored to present probably the most George Bernard Shaw plays as any in the country.

It had so far shied away from Shaw's 1897 "The Devil's Disciple" since it involved a large cast and five different settings - too many for a modest theater company and limited stage.

But while the pandemic has forced the Stage Guild online (where it presented a production of Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" in November), it also made possible a stab at "The Devil's Disciple" via the same kind of Zoom screen boxes.

Given a snappy pace and excellent actors, it works surprisingly well. That's even though the cast is in modern day garb, largely minus props and the central figure uses ear buds. The words and sharp arguments of Shaw, backed by their emotional emphasis - with a Zoom worthy close-up from all, at all times - combine to make a successful production, under the direction of Laura Giannarelli.

Opening the Irish playwright's "American play" on St. Patrick's Day, the Washington Theater Guild is making "The Devil's Disciple" available free on YouTube just through Sunday.

There is similar urgency in the work, which takes place in the backdrop of Revolutionary War-era America, circa 1777.

The play, Shaw's eighth, was his first big financial success, with a successful run on Broadway that made British stages take another look at his work.

In it, a black sheep returns to town to claim his father's inheritance. Richard Dudgeon had been described as wicked, dissolute, godless and "living with Gypsies." All this from his disapproving mother.

Mostly, he was just not aligned with religion. When he is arrested by Redcoats and mistaken for a minister, he goes along with it, saving the minister and setting up a Christ-like sacrifice to enliven the underlying discourse. He earns the respect, and more, from the minister's wife, and the grudging admiration of British official presiding as his trial, no less than Gen. John Burgoyne (the real life British soldier, known as "Gentleman Johnny," was also a playwright, it turns out).

While some companies have been presenting Zoom-format online plays as a kind of enhanced reading, "The Devil's Disciple" shows just how committed each role has to be - looking straight out to the camera, as if looking at one another and focusing all of the action in the face and shoulders.

As the black sheep, Matthew Castleman is just right as the title character - confident, questioning, enjoying quite a bit his upper hand at the beginning and grounding his surprising choices at the end.

Steven Carpenter is able to convey concern, absorb abuse and eventually muster courage in his role as minister. Joy Jones is quietly mesmerizing in her shift of alliances, even as she has to display her feelings largely wordlessly.

Jamie Smithson goes for the laughs as a dim-witted brother expressing exasperation or a certain blankness even when not speaking.

Things are kicked up a notch when Alan Wade (filling in for Stage Guild founding member Bill Largess) appears as Burgoyne, with a command of melodic upper crust English diction and underlying sympathies of a gentleman.

Scott McCormick and Frank Britton are good in a pair of roles each and Billie Krishawn is a standout as a frightened niece.

But Helen Hedman's portrayal of a stern religious mother doesn't quite work, either because Shaw made her too strident, or she appears to be reading most of her lines. Her head is tilted downward, at any rate, her reading glasses on her nose, and just the lack of eye contact with the camera makes a big difference when trying to connect to the viewing audience - and while the rest of the cast is looking directly out.

Zoom will likely not be here to stay as a format for theatrical presentation when the pandemic finally recedes. (And what would Shaw have made of the current circumstances?).

But for now, Washington Stage Guild has found a way to use the online alternative effectively to tell a story as it notches another Shaw title into its history. Tune in now before it's gone.

Running time: Under two hours (Plan your own intermission with a pause button).

Photo: Joy Jones, Steven Carpenter, Matthew Castleman in "The Devil's Disciple."

"The Devil's Disciple" can be streamed anytime day or night through Sunday March 21 at 8p.m. on the Stage Guild's YouTube Channel.


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