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Theater review: ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ opens in Madison

Pictured: (front) Judith Anderson (Elizabeth A. Davis) confronts the British Sergeant (Sheffield Chastain).
Photo: © Jerry Dalia, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

July 5 performance of “The Devil’s Disciple” by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

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Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw set just one of his more than 60 plays in the United States—New Hampshire, to be precise. “The Devil’s Disciple,” which takes place in 1777 when the colonies were still fighting for independence, saw the footlights in a new production mounted by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, which opened Saturday, July 5.

Written in 1897, fully 17 years before the First World War, Shaw wryly commented on the absurdity of war in general. In the extensive Act I stage directions he wrote:

… suffice it to say, without prejudice, that they have convinced both Americans and English that the most high minded course for them to pursue is to kill as many of one another as possible, and that military operations to that end are in full swing, morally supported by confident requests from the clergy of both sides for the blessing of God on their arms.

But “The Devil’s Disciple” is much more than a commentary on warfare. It’s a story of what defines true heroism.

Richard “Dick” Dudgeon, the black sheep of the Dudgeon family, returns home and inherits a major portion of his father’s estate. In the title role, James Knight gave a tour-de-force performance of the swaggering, blasphemous rake, scandalizing all other characters by his every utterance.

When Richard visits the home of local minister Anthony Anderson, the British mistake him for Anderson and arrest him. Paul Niebanck made both a credible Presbyterian pastor—dutiful, pious yet not sanctimonious—and a loving husband.

Anderson’s wife, Judith, initially detests Richard Dudgeon, but her emotions get all confused when he does nothing to disabuse the British of the notion that they have actually arrested her husband the minister. Tony Award-nominated Elizabeth A. Davis depicted Judith’s conflicts with convincing sincerity and nuance, rendering hers the most sympathetic character onstage. Judith’s efforts to save Richard Dudgeon, who saved her husband, certainly ratcheted up the drama’s intensity in the face of Richard’s stalwart refusal to be rescued.

Among the secondary characters Cynthia Mace’s portrayal of the Dudgeon matriarch Anne—caustic and holier-than-thou—was so thoroughgoing as to make her presence felt even in Acts II and III, where her character does not appear. As her loutish good son “Christy” Dudgeon, Connor Carew looked and acted the oaf appealingly. Sheffield Chastain as an unsubtle British Sergeant tended a performance certainly lacking in subtlety but high on energy and exuberance, as befits a blustery officer.

For being a melodrama, “The Devil’s Disciple” sure elicited abundant laughter throughout, but never more than Act III, in the witty, dry lines assigned to Edmond Genest as British General Burgoyne, making the character something of a scene stealer, if not a show stopper.

Brittany Vasta’s set designs made the tiny stage seem huge, with its raised platform of a playing field surrounded by a considerable apron, where much action took place. Kudos to Costume Designer Candida Nichols, for dressing the Americans in drab puritanical garments, in stark contrast to the brilliant military garb of the British soldiers and officers. Sound Designer Karin Graybash and Lighting Designer Andrew Hungerford provided ambiance that was more than suitable, and Director Paul Mullins pulled everything together into a tight dramatic package that delivered plenty of sentiment and generated the whole gamut of emotions.