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Sympathy for the Devil

MY LIFE FOR THE world's future," the devil's disciple cried from the gallows. It is a gesture of self-conscious heroism that would have done Nathan Hale proud, but in George Bernard Shaw's world of comic melodrama, it remains only a gesture. In The Devil's Disciple, Richard Dudgeon cannot die, for his life, as a newly-created American saint, and the world's future, symbolized by the birth of the United States, depend on each other.

The action in The Devil's Disciple revolves around the discovery of true identity by Dudgeon and his counterpart, Reverend Anthony Anderson, a discovery which takes place against the background of colonial rebellion against the British. Notorious for his blasphemous gusto for life, Dudgeon in the course of the play proves willing to follow his own peculiar religion to the death--even when that death is theoretically another man's. When the British mistake him for the minister, whom they plan to hang as an example to town rebels, Dudgeon declines to correct their mistake. Meanwhile, Anderson, realizing his own ministerial garb cloaks a worldy temperament that glories in righteous warfare, has scurried off to rally the colonists. As captain of the local militia, he triumphantly rescues Dudgeon from the gallows and offers the "devil's disciple" his old role as spiritual guide for the town's now-revolutionary populace. After nearly exchanging places in death, the two protagonists now switch roles in life.

FOR ALL ITS improbability, The Devil's Disciple, thanks to Shaw's gift for dialogue and character, is a highly entertaining work, and the Summer School Repertory Theater's spirited production does it ample justice. With the help of a distinguished cast, director Richard Edelman has mounted a very funny, generally convincing version of Shaw's unwitting paen to the U.S. bicentennial, though even Edelman and company can't quite make Dudgeon's transformation into a man of the cloth.

John Glover as Dudgeon certainly does his best, remaining comfortable with Shaw's script even when the script itself lets him down. Exuding energy and contempt for the fusty and hypocritical Puritanism of his elders, Glover makes his entrance early in the action with dramatic flair, twirling his cape flamboyantly, strutting around the stage and insulting everyone in sight. Edelman's spitfire pacing and clever use of props, together with Glover's easy stage presence, make this scene--in which the relatives gather to hear Dudgeon pere's will--a comic gem that sets the tone for the rest of the production.

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Playing opposite Dudgeon, Robert Murch makes a virtuous and likeable Anderson. As Dudgeon less convincingly ascends to martyrdom, Murch, everworldy, acts his own transformation from tranquil pastor to booted man of war in a high comic vein.

While Glover and Anderson steal some scenes, James Valentine as "Gentlemanly Johnny" Burgoyne steals the show. The part of Burgoyne--a supercilious aristocrat straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan--is an ideal comic showcase, and Valentine makes the most of it, eliciting a laugh a line. Mugging outrageously and delivering his lines with superb timing, Valentine etches a sharp portrait of a British general with the humanity to rejoice in a defeat that prevents murder.

IN CONTRAST TO Burgoyne is the muddle-brained Major Swindon, who lacks the elevated aristocratic perspective. Edelman has done well to cast William Young in the role: Young not only pronounces his lines with an ugly pigheadedness; he even looks like a swine.

In The Devil's Disciple, Shaw's misogyny is in plain view; the two leading female characters are depicted mainly as obstacles to the fulfillment of worthwhile male goals. While Martha Farrar as Mrs. Dudgeon satisfactorily avoids caricaturing the crotchety old woman, Wendy Fulton is less successful as Judith Anderson.

Part of her problem stems from the difficulty of the role: if the minister's wife is too appealing, Dudgeon's eventual rejection of her will seem neither understandable nor sympathetic, distorting the comic balance of the play. For that reason, director Edelman has made Fulton's performance the most stylized in the production. Although Fulton has some good moments--when her face is transfigured by the memory of Dudgeon's heroism, for example--for the most part, she ends up playing Judith as a stock comic character, a foolish, romantic female who inhabits an entirely different theatrical world than her more naturalistic male counterparts. While this interpretation certainly makes her rejection by Dudgeon seem justifiable, it also devalues it, making it too easy. As Judith's entreaties grate more and more, it seems no wonder that Dudgeon should look longingly toward the gallows.

Aside from the playing of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" between acts, Edelman has directed The Devil's Disciple without undue bicentennial self-consciousness. His cast goes through its paces against a background of colonial oranges and browns that dominate Donald Soule's carefully-crafted sets, and the play's focus properly remains on individual, rather than national, transformation.

Besides, while the bicentennial is a spectacle that begs our involvement, Shaw cunningly obliges us to distance ourselves from the illusion he presents. At one point, after Swindon, in the face of disastrous war news, declares his faith in his countrymen's devotion. Burgoyne cuttingly asks him if he's writing a melodrama. With all this self-consciousness, it's not too surprising that The Devil's Disciple never quite compels our belief. But neither does it matter, since the Summer School Repertory Theater, inaugurating its season with polish and style, so winningly compels our laughter.

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