Review: ‘The Good Devil (In Spite of Himself)’ at WSC Avant Bard

The Good Devil (In Spite of Himself) is a good and plenty retelling of the classic Faust tale and how art can imitate life. Well, let’s really say it is an entertaining satiric retelling that uses Faust as an excuse to knock central authority. Yes, really, The Good Devil (In Spite of Himself) is a wholly new “prank” show devised by co-writers Mario Baldessari and Tyler Herman that is true to what Herman, wrote in his WSC Avant Bard program notes: “Embrace your ridiculousness. Love your complexity. Laugh at it all.” Herman also directed the production.

Natalie Cutcher (Rosina Spittitucci) and Matthew Aldwin McGee (Salvatore Spittitucci). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Natalie Cutcher (Rosina Spittitucci) and Matthew Aldwin McGee
(Salvatore Spittitucci). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The Good Devil (In Spite of Himself) is full of on-stage characters (and probably like us in real life as well) finding ways around annoying, imposed rules from high above. Yes, rules must be broken, don’t they?

The play was built upon the real censorship decrees against certain Commedia dell’Arte theater performances by the powerful ruler of France, King Louis XIV in the 1700’s.According to some historical records, dear King Louis XIV at first banned dialogue between Commedia actors on stage, then monologues, then singing, and so forth. With each decree, the players found ways around them; though over time the end did come.

With its Punch and Judy slapstick aspects, total irreverence and high-flying leaps into the abyss, The Good Devil (In Spite of Himself) is a welcome break from the current toxic political world of the upcoming November 2016 election. And Director Herman, with his DC area Faction of Fools Commedia background, keeps the pacing more than just lively; he keeps it like a speeding conveyor belt similar to that famous I Love Lucy episode of chocolate drops moving every more fast down a conveyor belt (Watch it here)

(From left:) Doug Wilder (Royal Messenger/The Devil), Matthew Aldwin McGee (Salvatore Spittitucci/Lelio), and Natalie Cutcher (Rosina Spittitucci/Isadore). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
(From left:) Doug Wilder (Royal Messenger/The Devil), Matthew Aldwin
McGee (Salvatore Spittitucci/Lelio), and Natalie Cutcher (Rosina
Spittitucci/Isadore). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Last night, a torrent of rain had descended upon the area and just subsided as the curtain was ready to rise. Luckily for the audience, the production commenced. Some of the scenes seemed overlong to me, losing the desired frontal attack and connection to censorship. As the production continues, I suspect there will be tightening of scene work and pacing. But, no matter, satiric fun and breaking government rules is what The Good Devil aims for and delivers. 

The Good Devil tells a story of the Spittituccis, a husband-and-wife, amateur comedy troupe who must perform before townsfolk and a representative of the King called the Royal Messenger. Seems the original cast of professional actors departed unexpectedly; they weren’t being paid. Oh, not only is the Spittituccis family rather unprepared not even being “off-book,” but they must get around a new censorship laws or risk their heads.

The production takes off into finding all the loopholes the Spitticuccis are able to find as they openly, but not directly, revolt against central government dictates and loss of their freedoms. Ah, ‘freedom’ – a word that seems itself to be re-interpreted often these days, as it is said IMHO.

With the breathless, effervescent, and clearly improv skilled acting chops of  Matthew Aldwin McGee, Natalie Cutcher, and Doug Wilder, who take on characters too numerous to count, The Good Devil (In Spite of Himself) is a lively production. True to Commedia dell’Arte, the characters are played with and without masks, they are female and male, old and young, some witty, others pompous, some domineering, some cowering, archly played with a raised eyebrow and a break with the proverbial theater 4th wall.

Cutcher is the alpha of the production with a comic strut in her manner, facial expressions that scream, “Do this!!! to her husband and other stage characters, and a steaming “Don’t-mess-with-me!!!” attitude.

McGee is the “put-upon” husband and for many characters plays “straight” but with humorous flourishes.

Wilder is the “just enough prissy” Royal Messenger, as he calls himself. He easily enticed into playing the Devil himself. As an ensemble, there is a plentiful of physicality, including delightful acrobatics.

As appropriate for Commedia dell’Arte, there are inspired masks with credit to the talented Sarah Cont. She is an associated artist with DC’s venerable Commedia dell’Arte Faction of Fools. The setting (Brian Gillick), sound (Mehdi Raoufi), lights (Jason Aufdem-Brinke) are unassuming at initial view.  They permit the cast to move through doors, entryways with dirty curtains, framed windows and do acrobatics on a diagonally placed harrow platform to juts to the audience. The many quick-change costumes by Lynly Saunders are a visual feast of place and time.

(From left:) Matthew Aldwin McGee (Salvatore Spittitucci/Il Dottore), and Doug Wilder (Royal Messenger/The Devil). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
(From left:) Matthew Aldwin McGee (Salvatore Spittitucci/Il Dottore), and Doug Wilder (Royal Messenger/The Devil). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Now, major kudos to WSC Avant Bard dramaturg Maegan Clearwood. She provides the audience what a good dramaturg should – easily read and understood context and history for a new play. Her writing is recommended reading, and if you can before the show, but at least after. Here are the links to her notes:

http://wscavantbard.org/good-devil-history/

http://wscavantbard.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Good-to-Know-Good-Devil.pdf

The Good Devil (In Spite of Himself) is inspired lunacy. If true to its Commedia dell’Arte roots, each performance will be a bit different with improv and even its rehearsed physicality  For those attuned to Commedia dell’Arte, or want a sojourn away from today’s nasty political world, there is plenty of ruckus fun and subversive slaps at authority. I was up for it. Hope you are too. You will have a very fun time in the theater.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

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The Good Devil (In Spite of Himself ) plays through July 17, 2016, at WSC Avant Bard performing at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online.

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