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The Devil's Disciple
The self-described "upstart son of a downstart," Shaw has also been labeled (as he has himself once said of Oscar Wilde) "the world's most thorough playwright." To be sure, the "upstart," delighted himself by toying with every social, political, moral and ethical rebellion from here to Methuselah and back. In his most rebellious mood with The Devil's Disciple, he cleverly probed into the ceremoniously veiled presumptions about Godliness and deviltry.
Is it less than Godliness when the irreverent and incorrigible (according to the conventional community standards of Websterbridge, N.J., 1777) Dick Dudgeon, the black sheep of the family, not only takes an orphan under his wing but also takes the place of the purposefully dedicated Parson Anderson at the foot of the gallows? And what are we to make of the parson's quick decision to sell his Bibles in order to buy pistols so he, with the help of a neighboring band of patriots, can surround Burgoyne's army and effect Dick's release?
The Devil's Disciple is full of tantalizing questions and startling discoveries about people who may indeed be more or less than the labels society has affixed to them. This delectably spicy and winningly short melodrama has been appointed to a comely company of excellent actors whose delight it is to make every minute invigorating and fun. Act 1 is dominated by the charismatic Lorenzo Pisoni. He displays considerable charm as Richard, a smuggler who lives with Gypsies and is branded as "wicked, dissolute, godless." With the Act 2 arrival of the endearing John Windsor-Cunningham's formidably disposed "Gentleman Johnny," Burgoyne, the company good naturedly and with comedic aplomb thrusts itself into the philosophically endowed havoc . Cunningham drolly delivers Burgoyne's best line, when he proclaims the solemnity of the occasion, "Martyrdom, sir, is what these people like. It is the only way a man can become famous without ability," and gets the play's heartiest laugh.
But Shaw remains relevant. When Parson Anderson asks Burgoyne: "Have you realized that though you may occupy towns and win battles, you cannot conquer a nation?" it is a chilling reminder of how America has ironically assumed a role similar to the one the British once had on foreign soil. When Burgoyne takes umbrage with Dick's defiance of the taxes levied by the British on the Americans, it is Dick's response that gets its due from the audience: "It's not the money, General, but being swindled by a pig-headed lunatic like King George."
Directed in a playful manner by Tony Walton, the unsentimental wit expressed in Shaw's slight but stingingly irreverent comedy remains a remarkably buoyant and relevant exposure of the puritanical. Making a delectably conflicted spectacle of herself as the parson's given-to-fainting wife who can't get that "blasphemous," rogue Dick out of her mind, Jenny Fellner is a delight. Pisoni and Fellner give their insinuatingly intimate scenes just the right touch of don't-touch-me- but-I'm-yours-if-you-want-me.
As the Clark Kent into super "man of action" parson, Carzon Dobell fills the bill splendidly. There is plenty of humor to be found in Craig Pattison's goofy portrayal of Dick's brother, the intellectually challenged Christy Dudgeon, and in the humorless piety of the Widow Dudgeon, as portrayed with sanctimonious rigidity by Darcy Pulliam. Orphan Essie's insecurity is sweetly captured by Cristin Milioti. Robert Sedgwick is splendid as Uncle Titus Dudgeon, and as the incompetent and insipid Major Swindon.
Despite the modest scenery dictated by the space, Tony Walton has created four settings to evoke the Dudgeon dwelling, the minister's home, British headquarters and the gallows yard. Walton is also to be commended for having ten actors portray fourteen characters with concerted brio. The original New York production in 1897 boasted thirty-three featured players among the one hundred that trod the stage, including soldiers and a military band. Though this time for musical accompaniment we have to content ourselves with Dick whistling a brief refrain of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," more than one patron was heard singing that tune as they exited the theater.
Interesting to note: The familiar pre-Revolutionary song was originally sung by the British to mock the tattered and undisciplined Americans. A "doodle," was a simpleton and a "macaroni," was an American who thought it the height of fashion to put a feather in his hat. You could say that the Irish Rep has put another feather in its cap.
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