MADISON, NJ – The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has made a sterling choice in this George Bernard Shaw tale of the Revolutionary War and its impact on a small town in New Hampshire.
“The Devil’s Disciple” is more than a case of mistaken identity, as one man is willing to sacrifice his life for another, while the other man’s wife is torn between the ‘goodness’ of her husband and the ‘rogue’ outsider who represents courage.
The production, directed by Paul Mullins, instills lessons in history and human character while making the most of Shaw’s humor and sly take on the pomposity of the British soldiers and the absurd antics of the Americans rebelling against King George III.
The cast is exemplary, starting with Cynthia Mace as Mrs. Anne Dudgeon, a sharp tongued woman who sees mostly shortcomings in those around her.
She is soon revealed in all her meanness by her son Richard, very much the sheep of the family. James Knight makes a devilish, rebellious son. He’s effectively pitted against Paul Niebanck as Anthony Anderson, the Presbyterian preacher who sees good in everyone. Anderson’s wife, Judith, played by Elizabeth A. Davis, is a beauty who can’t decide whether to reveal Dudgeon’s true identity or protect her husband’s reputation.
Katie Willmorth is the timid young lass, Essie, who is terrified of Mrs. Dudgeon and grateful to Richard for treating her with kindness. Edmond Genest is perfect as General Burgoyne, known in the area as Gentleman Johnny. His timing is superb, especially when an aide asks what will history say? He responds that “History, sir, will tell lies, as usual.” It’s especially droll when we realize that Britain may have lost the colonies because someone in England didn’t bother to send a message to the troops in a timely manner. To continue the battle, the 5,000 soldiers would be faced with rebelling 16,000 farmers and local colonists.
Matt Sullivan is an excellent foil as Major Swindon. Sheffield Chastain as the Sergeant has a strong comedic flair, especially when he accepts a bribe from the preacher’s wife.
John Little is priceless as Lawyer Hawkins with his reading of the will and precise interpretation.
The clever staging is based on a set design by Brittany Vasta. Although much of the action is on a raised platform, this also allows the British soldiers to parade on a lower level and a realistic gallows to appear in a stark preparation for a hanging. The simplicity of the set, even the imagined fireplace and intricate entrances work in the play’s favor. It’s unusual to see this kind of a raised platform versus the usual slanted stage and exits at the side. But the solution keeps the action front and center at all times.
An effective transition involves the majority of the cast robustly singing “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” as the scene shifts from one house to another.
Costumes by Candida Nichols serve the play well, especially the men’s coats that are crucial for the scene with the mistaken arrest. Judith’s gowns are becoming without being overdone.
You’ll enjoy the clever dialogue and broad characters of this rarely performed play by Shaw, a treat for all ages in the clipped, smart production at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Performances continue on the campus of Drew University in Madison through July 27. For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit ShakespeareNJ.org.
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