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Review: STNJ's 'The Devil's Disciple' is superior theater

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The Devil's Disciple-live play

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Perfect for the July Fourth, Independence Day period,The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is presenting a gem of a play George Bernard Shaw’s rarely produced Revolutionary War drama "The Devil’s Disciple." Shaw wrote the play in 1897 and it was his first financial success. The play, set in 1777 Colonial America (New Hampshire), tells the story of Richard Dudgeon, a local outcast and self-proclaimed "Devil's disciple" who flaunts his vice-driven beliefs to his puritanical family led by his dour mother, but yet is also a man of honor who finds himself headed for the hangman's noose courtesy of the British Army when he becomes entangled with the local minister Anthony Anderson and the minister's beautiful wife, Judith. An alternate title of "The Devil’s Disciple; A Melodrama" might have been "A Question of Honor."

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If your only exposure to the play was via the abbreviated 82 minute 1959 film adaptation (Kirk Douglas as Richard Dudgeon, Burt Lancaster as the minister, Anthony Anderson, and Laurence Olivier as the British General John "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne) and you were less than impressed, please don't let it put you off this production. The movie padded Douglas' part transforming the film into a swashbuckling adventure, whereas this Paul Mullins directed production is faithful to Shaw and, most importantly, is superior theater, at the high level of presentation that we have come to expect from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. This is an excellent example of a live theater production outshining a film version of the same story.

The outstanding cast includes James Knight as Richard “Dick” Dudgeon, the black sheep “Devil’s disciple;” Knight is, as the Brits say, "spot-on" properly dashing in the Errol Flynn mold; as the respected local minister Anthony Anderson, Paul Niebanck is properly sober; Tony Award-nominated actress Elizabeth A. Davis nicely plays the minister’s wife Judith Anderson, conflicted and confused by the unexpected actions of her "virtuous" husband and the assumed scoundrel “Dick” Dudgeon; Cynthia Mace is very effective as the strict Dudgeon matriarch, Anne, who shocks when she wishes for her bible flaunting son Richard an early demise; Edmond Genest could not be more perfect as the thoroughly disillusioned British General Burgoyne; Matt Sullivan gives a solid performance as the properly stiff, by the book Major Swindon; Sheffield Chastain provides several humorous moments as the British Sergeant; Connor Carew is “Christy” Dudgeon, the obedient son, Michael Daly as the stern Uncle William Dudgeon and the Chaplin; and John Little as Lawyer Hawkins and a British officer.

Rounding out the cast are: Katie Willmorth as the young, illegitimate Essie; Nancy Rich and Rosemary Wall as Dudgeon aunts; Samuel Cheeseman, Samuel Hardy, Stark Kirby, Chris Rothbauer, and Jeffrey Allen Sneed as British soldiers.

The production impresses from the stark, gallows inspired platform set from scenic designer Brittany Vasta, Candida Nichols's colonial costumes and Red Coat uniforms, the dramatic lighting from Andrew Hungerford and the sound design of Steven L. Beckel, particularly the chill producing military drums.

"The Devil's Disciple" is a beautifully produced, thoughtful play with a fine balance of drama and comedy. The cast, in particular, are superb. It is wonderful to see that theatre is 'alive and well' in New Jersey.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio July 5, 2014

"The Devils Disciple" began July 2nd at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. (at Lancaster Road) in Madison. Individual tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 973-408-5600 or by visiting www.ShakespeareNJ.org. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Individual tickets range from $15 to $75. The run ends on July 27th.

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