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  • Title: The Devil’s Disciple
  • Written by: Bernard Shaw
  • Director: Eda Holmes
  • Actors: Martin Happer, Katherine Gauthier
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: The Nona Macdonald Stage in the Festival Theatre parking lot
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: To Oct 9, 2021

Critic’s Pick

Hallelujah, praise the devil!

As director Eda Holmes’s new production of The Devil’s Disciple at the Shaw Festival slowly tightened its grip on me, I felt for the first moment since the pandemic began that theatre was truly back – with no compromises.

This 1897 melodrama, an underrated early effort by Bernard Shaw, is set during the American Revolution – and it really takes off in its second scene as the redcoats are about to arrive in a small New England village full of rebels.

Reverend Anderson (Graeme Somerville) has invited Dick Dudgeon (Martin Happer), a roguish outcast, over to his house in an attempt to persuade him to flee before he is hung by the British troops as his father and uncle were before him. But Dudgeon, who dubs himself “the devil’s disciple” in rejection of his community’s pious cruelty, has no desire to be saved one way or another.

The tension really ramps up when the minister is summoned away and has to leave his devout wife Judith Anderson (Katherine Gauthier) alone with Dudgeon. The two share an uneasy cup of tea – before she finally admits, “I hate and dread you.”

As her husband had noted not that long before, however, “If you watch people carefully, you’ll be surprised to find how like hate is to love.”

Holmes slows down the action in this scene sufficiently to allow us to really watch that carefully – and see both the ideological opposition and complex, lopsided attraction between the characters.

Gauthier finds myriad shades of shame, confusion and anger in between the lines Shaw has written; she’s an actor of emotional bursts and sudden temperature shifts, which she has gradually learned to shape into an original and highly engaging performance style.

Happer, meanwhile, gives a classically Shavian performance of repulsive charisma as a character who is, in this case quite literally, the devil’s advocate. He wisely avoids trying to seduce the audience too directly and lets his contrarian rhetoric wriggle its way in; it’s a product of 16 seasons perfecting the style of a playwright who’s not exactly widely in fashion.

It’s just such a pleasure to watch these two talents face off – until the dramatic moment (watch out, spoiler ahead) when the redcoats arrive to arrest the minister and Dudgeon pretends to be him and takes his place.

I’m okay with spoiling that twist because there’s no lack of them in this rare Shaw play where action doesn’t play second fiddle to ideas. There’s a dramatic will reading, a courtroom scene and a climax at the gallows. (The influence of Charles Dickens and certainly A Tale of Two Cities on Shaw is strong in this one.)

I also mention that twist because it’s the psychological mystery behind it that compels in Shaw’s play: Why does Dudgeon imperil himself to save a man who he ostensibly opposes? Does he do it for the minister’s wife? And, if so, is it out of pity or love?

Shaw’s use of a triangle of characters to explore the ultimate uncertainty of human motivation almost seems to anticipate a play that would premiere 101 years later – Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.

The Devil’s Disciple has 13 in its cast altogether. The Shaw Festival has not put aside the repertory system for the year (as the Stratford Festival has done), so you get luxury casting of company veterans Damien Atkins as a pedantic lawyer and Julia Course as a particularly prudish townsperson.

There’s also a pair of fine supporting performances by Johnathan Sousa and Kristopher Bowman as Dudgeon’s yokel of a brother and a patriotically foolish British major, respectively.

Chick Reid is the unlikeable matriarch of the Dudgeon family, a bit of a thankless role, and Shauna Thompson plays the illegitimate child who clings to Dudgeon, an entirely thankless one.

Tom McCamus oozes on stage late in the game as the cynical General Burgoyne, who knows just how little Britain is really committed to keeping its rebellious colonies; it’s wonderful to be reacquainted with this master actor.

McCamus also delivers a prologue that draws attention to what are called the “lies” in Shaw’s depiction of the American Revolution – chiefly, the omission any mention of Indigenous people and history or slavery in the heroic portrait.

Shaw was known for writing prefaces that frankly analyzed his plays’ strengths and deficiencies – and so I found the tone and content of this acknowledgment to be entirely in keeping with the spirit of his work. It does leave the audience unsure of whether to read (or not read) race into the production itself, however.

Holmes provides clearer direction in the way she makes evident the oppressive sexism of the society depicted (and, possibly, in the play itself) without painting the women merely as victims.

Of the three shows currently outdoors at Shaw, The Devil’s Disciple has the most comfortable set up – and indeed it will stay in the tent in the parking lot next to the Festival Theatre into the fall. Michael Gianfrancesco’s set is simple and attractive – and Gillian Gallow’s period costumes do the trick. The sound system could use a tweak, but otherwise there’s nothing lacking compared with “normal.”

Credit where it’s due: Artistic director Tim Carroll’s populist demystifying approach to running the Shaw Festival, and refusal to indulge elitist tastes too much, paved the way for the staging experiments of this season to feel so natural and on-brand.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.

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