No one served George Bernard Shaw's satirical purposes better than the religious hypocrite. In The Devil's Disciple, you can almost hear Shaw smacking his lips in anticipation as he sets forth his plot of the rogue and his pious family. The rogue, of course, ends up with the family fortune, love and the chance to prove he's a hero.
That the play is a string of clichs Shaw himself admitted. The action takes place in the American colonies of 1777, in a Puritan village under attack by British forces. There's the reading of the will, a pitiful orphan girl, soldiers barging into the house to make an arrest, a case of mistaken identity, a courtroom scene and the requisite last-minute reprieve.
But what fun Shaw has with his clichs. And he trusts his audience enough to get the humor, a generosity of spirit not common enough in the theatre these days. Shaw doesn't bludgeon you with his thoughts and opinions; he leads you down the garden path. He was a curmudgeon and an eccentric, but irresistible--one must hear him out.
The best part of The Devil's Disciple is when Richard Dudgeon, a loud braggart who offends anyone of moral virtue, goes from villain to hero by offering up his life in place of the town minister's. Dudgeon has no logical motive, and Shaw knows we can't quite believe it's true--there must be a catch somewhere.
But Dudgeon performs a hero's act merely because he has a hero's character and the situation has presented itself, whether he goes to church on Sundays or not. Shaw couldn't resist rubbing it in at the play's end, turning the minister into a military leader and having Dudgeon step into the minister's role--the implication being that the world would be a much better place if such swaps routinely happened.
The Devil's Disciple, currently onstage as a student production at Grand Canyon University, requires acting that is straightforward and sincere, but not humorless. The tendency is for actors to mug in the more satirical parts, but with Shaw, that's belaboring the obvious. One of the most readable of playwrights, Shaw has the essence down on paper, and lots of physical comedy ends up a distraction. The subtlety of Shaw's humor lies in the audience recognition of character types, and if you're hit over the head with them, you're cheated of the moment of discovery.
Although the leads in this production of The Devil's Disciple were adequate--Jason D. Anderson as Dudgeon, Thomas Cook as the minister and Christine J. Dunn as the minister's wife, the essence of Shaw didn't emerge until Act Three, with the appearance of the two British military officers, played by Gordon E. Williford and Adam G. Bertrand. Shaw's references to British foreign policy of the period and the ineptitude of the British military might seem obscure, but these two actors played their pompous roles with such relish that they turned the trick.
Shaw should be staged more often. In an age of topicality that ends up as a continual contest to shock and amaze, it's instructional to be able to sit back and listen to a playwright who can say what's on his mind in such a beautifully funny way.
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