Many well-made and renowned plays are rarely seen onstage. Extensive staging requirements, such as multiple locations or an expansive cast of characters, often give theater companies pause when considering such works. Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, for example, is just not seen very often onstage.
Neither is George Bernard Shaw’s early success The Devil’s Disciple. Due to the varied settings and required dramatis personae, this play is not a practical choice for most theaters, like Washington Stage Guild. But according to board president Laura Giannarelli, this Shaw play is one of the most requested by their patrons.
And then COVID-19 changed the landscape as we know it and in particular the reality of the performing arts. As many companies have been creative with their use of Zoom and other video streaming platforms, Washington Stage Guild (WSG) has followed suit. Back in November, they streamed Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell for a limited run.
Their current follow-up, also available for a short time, is The Devil’s Disciple, the story of an inheritance and a sacrifice, set during the American Revolution. Through a clean and simple Zoom-style presentation, Shaw’s characteristic wit and verbiage takes center stage in WSG’s virtual presentation of this neglected classic, and they bring it to life with graceful skill.
Matthew Castleman takes the lead in commanding fashion as the title character, the self-proclaimed Devil’s disciple, Richard “Dick” Dudgeon. With a manly swagger and refined feline-voice, Castleman’s Dick Dudgeon takes charge of the proceedings and has a field day with Shaw’s rich character and playful language.
As the pivotal minister, the Reverend Anderson, Steven Carpenter is the benevolent and complicated foil to Dick Dudgeon’s dark horse. Carpenter’s calm voice grows with intensity and works in tandem with Castleman’s virile and stalwart Dudgeon.
Joy Jones, as the minister’s devoted wife, Judith, brings elegance and depth of feeling to the screen. Judith’s relationship with her husband, a man of the cloth, and with the troubled Dudgeon is key to the plot. The trio works like a finely tuned machine, handling the Shavian rhetoric and complex dynamics between the characters skillfully.
Making a late appearance in the play, British General “Gentlemanly Johnny” Burgoyne, as played by Alan Wade, rounds out the key players. Wade, with a jolly good British accent, offers authority as the enemy antagonist, while reveling in Shaw’s sparkling dialogue.
Castleman, Carpenter, Wade, and Jones are ably supported by some of the region’s finest acting talent. Jamie Smithson offers some comedic relief as Dick’s younger brother, Christy. By contrast, Helen Hedman, as matriarch Mrs. Dudgeon, is a stern and imperious presence, unapproving of her elder son and his heathen ways. Billie Krishawn brings wide-eyed innocence and developing strength as Essie, Mrs. Dudgeon’s illegitimate niece. Actors Stan Kang, Scott McCormick, and Frank Britton round out the cast as both Americans and Brits, bringing to life their characters with aplomb, keeping each one distinct.
The settings of the play — the Dudgeon family home in New Hampshire, the minister’s house, a British Army camp, and the town square — are all suggested and described in brief narrations spoken by the mellifluous voice of director (and actress) Laura Giannarelli. She also fills in some well-placed stage directions to clarify the action. Creative sound design and editing, credited to Marcus Darnley, enhance the performances. Other essential crew members were editor Lauren Hyland and production manager Elaine Randolph.
No wonder this play is so popular among Washington Stage Guild’s most devoted audience members. While not as familiar as Pygmalion or Man and Superman, the story within The Devil’s Disciple, and its antihero protagonist, is one of Shaw’s most engaging. The focus on Dudgeon’s movement toward being a man of goodness while Rev. Anderson takes a heroic stance is clear and completely engaging. My hat is off to WSG for finding a way to bring this play to audiences, even if it had to be online. Such virtual events offer hope for a company of actors to be able to take the stage again — soon, please soon! — and weave the spell of storytelling, drama, comedy, and pathos with audiences in the same space.
Running Time: One hour, 49 minutes.
The Devil’s Disciple is available for viewing until 8 pm, Sunday, March 21, 2021, on Washington Stage Guild’s YouTube page.